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Chaminade valedictorian found his career after six days on life support

Derek Lekhwani, Chaminade High School’s Class of 2020 valedictorian, talks about being diagnosed with sepsis halfway through his junior year and spending six days on life support.  Credit: Newsday / Kimberly Yuen

Derek Lekhwani’s high school career came to a halt halfway through his junior year, when he spent six days on life support and 51 days overall in the hospital. He questioned if he was going to be able to graduate.

But on Aug. 1, he will, and as Chaminade High School’s Class of 2020 valedictorian.

In November 2018, Lekhwani, of Williston Park, was diagnosed with sepsis, a life-threatening condition caused by the body’s response to an infection.

“It’s still a little frustrating; I still don’t know how it happened,” said the 18-year-old Lekhwani.

Lekhwani thinks he may have gotten it from a cut at the gym. One Friday, he started feeling a lot of pain, and his chest was swollen. He went to two doctors over the weekend, and they told him it was a strain in his pectoral muscles.

“It just didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel like a strain. It really felt like a lot of pain,” he said.

Lekhwani said he didn’t have a fever, but over the course of hours, “I kept deteriorating. Renal failure, cardiac and respiratory failure.

“The next day — it was a Monday — I was on life support.”

From sepsis, it rapidly evolved into severe sepsis and then septic shock. He also was diagnosed with a flesh-eating disease called necrotizing fasciitis. He spent 2 1/2 weeks, six of those days on life support, in the ICU at NYU Winthrop Hospital in Mineola. Right before he was to leave the ICU, he had a pleural effusion, a buildup of fluid in the lungs. He needed a chest tube, which resulted in a laceration to his liver. He also had an E.coli infection, and then needed another chest tube.

“Sepsis doesn’t usually have that many complications,” Lekhwani said. “I had a perfect storm.”

Dr. Gabby Saadia, a pediatrician at NYU Winthrop, was one of the first doctors involved in Lekhwani’s care.

“Derek’s situation was more unique. The way he was infected, the kind of bacteria he had, it required multiple surgeries,” Saadia said. “His healing process from those surgeries is really what separated him from people who had sepsis that did not require surgery.”

After spending 46 days at NYU Winthrop, he was discharged shortly after New Year’s Day in 2019. But he had to go into Manhattan to the Hospital for Special Surgery two weeks later for two more operations for a bone infection in his right index finger. He said doctors had to remove a piece of tendon from his finger. He was there for another five days.

“The finger is permanently damaged. It doesn’t look normal,” said Lekhwani, who is righthanded. “There’s a lot of pain there still. I don’t have full functionality of it.”

When he regained his basic motor skills and recovered from the surgeries and tests, he started looking at all the schoolwork he missed.

“In my district, they provide teachers from tutoring agencies,” he said. “They were nice and helpful. I got notes from friends. Luckily, Chaminade’s curriculum was mostly online with the iPad.”

Lekhwani said his teachers at the private Catholic school in Mineola were very supportive and understanding of his situation and worked around his therapy appointments.

“They were definitely flexible with answering questions,” he said.

Lekhwani said he found out he was named valedictorian through a post on the school’s Instagram account. His overall unweighted GPA for his four years was 99.54.

“It is obviously very humbling,” he said. “It definitely crossed my mind that I might not be able to graduate on time, so I worked as hard as I could in order to try to keep pace.”

His illness also delayed his college visits, and he didn’t get around to taking the SAT and ACT until the summer before his senior year. His senior year was spent juggling therapy appointments and coursework.

He was hoping to play baseball in college, but he can’t make a full fist. He still has “massive scars” on his chest, right outer thigh and his right index finger. But he was able to pick up the cello again, and he’s looking forward to trying out for the college club team.

The illness did open up a new career path for him. “After this [experience], I knew I wanted to go into something with health care,” Lekhwani said.

He’ll be attending Hofstra University this fall, pursuing a bachelor’s and master’s dual-degree program in Physician Assistant Studies.

“I’m intrigued with the medicine with which I was healed. I have a sense of how it is to be in the hospital for an extended time. I can be a source of comfort for people who are ill,” he said.

“I’m extremely grateful that things turned out the way they did.”

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