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Love conquers extreme adversity for Islip tennis star Maddie Germano

Less than a month after the death of her mother from ovarian cancer, the teen was diagnosed with a condition requiring brain surgery. Yet she went on to win a tennis championship.

Maddie Germano discussed the loss of her mother and her own health issues in an interview on Oct. 24. (Credit: Newsday / Newsday / Casey Musarra; Photo Credit: Newsday / Shelby Knowles; Daniel De Mato, Joseph D. Sullivan, Charles Germano)

Maddie Germano has overcome more than any teenager should have to endure. 

The Islip High School junior, a key performer on the varsity tennis team, spent all of 2017 watching her mother, Tracey, wage a fierce but losing battle with ovarian cancer. Maddie went from optimism for a complete cure to hope for experimental treatment to the searing pain of loss on the final day of the year.

Maddie waged her own battles on the tennis court as her family tragedy unfolded. Her singles record during her sophomore season was as outstanding as everyone forecast when she was first elevated to the varsity as a seventh-grader, though the matches seemed to get tougher. She played through headaches and numbness in her hands that everyone told her was the physical manifestation of the anguish of a young girl losing her mother.

But Maddie’s headaches did not go away. Still grieving from losing her mom at the age of 47, her own health was now in question. Medical tests in January revealed a Chiari malformation, a rare brain condition in which the flow of cerebral-spinal fluid is impinged by the structure of the skull and first cervical vertebrae. Maddie needed brain surgery to correct it.

“For a time it sort of distracted me from [the grief],” she said. “But then I wanted my mom to be there with me through it.”

The procedure in March left Maddie, 16, with a 6-inch scar on the back of her head. She was home-schooled for four weeks and returned for the fall semester intent on attacking this tennis season.

Come tournament time, she wanted to play doubles with best friend Darienne Rogers, whose mother had driven the two to Memorial Sloan Kettering in Manhattan to visit Tracey.

“She was like a sister to me — a member of our family — and her mother was like a second mother,” Maddie said.

Germano and Rogers were as good on the court as off it. Last month they captured the Suffolk Division II doubles title and earned all-State honors in the county tournament. Maddie says that being best friends “gave us a connection different from other people.”

“Maddie’s story is one of incredible strength,” Islip tennis coach Steve Arey said. “She was an inspiration to everyone while her mother fought her battle with cancer. And she became an inspiration again dealing with her own [crisis]. . . . She is an exceptional student and an exceptional tennis player who has won more than 90 matches. But it takes someone of exceptional character to persevere like she has and never go off course.”     

A GOODBYE NEVER HEARD

On Christmas Day of last year, Maddie Germano wanted to give her mother one last gift: a poem, the kind Tracey Germano had received years earlier and coveted. She set about penning something memorable, a compendium of words and emotions that, ultimately, never would find their mark.

Maddie explained that Tracey, whose trademark was unremitting positivity, wouldn’t allow a concession that this was her last holiday season. Still, she found a way to send the message. “Without outwardly saying it, she would tell me she knew she wasn’t going to be there in the future,” Maddie said.

Tracey had gone through treatment at Sloan Kettering, been to Cancer Treatment Centers of America, a Philadelphia hospital, for cutting edge treatment, returned for surgeries at Sloan and finally entered hospice care in late December.

And so Maddie sought to bring Tracey a slice of happiness and went to her words. “They say the kindest hearts have cried the most tears and that statement has proved to be true. For over all our wonderful years I haven’t met a soul more kind than you,” the poem began. The homage continued, “I know you’re up against the absolute worst” and concluded “You’re everything I could ask for and more; for the rest of my life I’ll always be waiting to reach the towering level of yours.”

It was a goodbye that never landed. Yes, Maddie’s love for Tracey was ever-present during the battle. But those soul-rending words never were heard. The duress of the treatment against this relentless disease caused Tracey to suffer a stroke that day and slip into a coma. She was moved to a hospice facility and died Dec. 31.

The poem is framed in a makeshift shrine her father, Charles, and Maddie have made of their living room. So many pictures. So many tributes to a caring and selfless wife and mother to Maddie and her brother, Cameron, 19. “There are so many memories,” said Charles, who met Tracey when they were students at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania.

Her mother's battle eventually affected Maddie’s personality. As she said, after the reality of the outcome became clear, “I held all my emotions in and that’s when I started acting differently. I didn’t outwardly cry to my friends. I just started staying home instead of going out with friends. When I did go, I didn’t have fun because it was all I would think about.”

Tracey’s death was an ending, but it also was a beginning of similarly challenging moment for Maddie.

'SHE’S ALWAYS BATTLED THROUGH EVERYTHING'

In the wake of profound grief — a teenager losing her young mother — churned up the horrific diagnosis for Maddie. All the headaches and back pain and numbness she’d attributed to her grief — those were symptoms and not side effects.

“She’d always battled through everything,” said Arey, her coach. “When she got the diagnosis we were like ‘holy crap — I can’t believe she played through this.’ But she can’t stop being a leader.”

The surgery and recovery was a painful experience no teenager should suffer. A 1.5-inch horseshoe-shaped opening was cut into her skull, her father said. A portion of her first cervical vertebrae was cut away to create space. Several slices were made in her cerebellum so that it could expand and contract like an accordion.

“I couldn’t lay back because the staples were there,” she said. “So the first night was terrible, the worst pain I’ve ever endured. I had to pace up and down the hallway holding my head up because I couldn’t sit. My head was too heavy and too painful. I couldn’t hold my head up with the pain and I couldn’t rest my head back against the site . . . [it was] 36 hours straight.”

The outpouring of love and support she had received during her mother’s battle was now helping Maddie through her crisis. Friends came forward. Teachers came forward. Coaches came forward. Maddie was home-schooled, at home or at the public library across the street, for weeks. The Islip High School community rose to help her meet the challenge.

“We are a small hamlet, but an incredible community,” said Charles, who is principal of Tooker Avenue Elementary School in West Babylon. “In some difficult times, we were truly embraced.”

Four weeks after the surgery, Maddie was back at school. In six she was working out with the girls lacrosse team.

Teal, the color associated with ovarian cancer research, became the unofficial team color for Islip girls tennis after Tracey was diagnosed. The team began donning teal shirts, many with “Team Tracey” emblazoned on them. All the players had a streak of teal dyed into their hair. Schoolmates chose to make it a movement.

“My teammates [and schoolmates] are part of what’s happened,” Maddie said. “But for me everything I will do is for my mom.” 

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