As myriad medical personnel tried to solve the mystery of what was ailing Nick Mauriello when the 16-year-old Hauppauge wrestler first complained of neck pains Jan. 24, they were puzzled but not panicked.
As family, friends, teammates and coaches anxiously watched and waited, one thought prevailed. "We figured, any day now, it's going to stop," Hauppauge coach Chris Messina said.
It didn't. Not the physical pain and not the mental anguish. The diagnoses didn't add up; only the questions did.
"It wasn't getting better. It was getting worse," Messina said of his highly ranked junior in the 125-pound class. "Here was this kid, a physical specimen, on his back and he can't breathe."
Fear of the unknown only added to the agony of a three-week nightmare for the Mauriellos and the tight Hauppauge wrestling community. And when Mauriello's condition finally became a known quantity - he was diagnosed with the potentially lethal bacterial infection MRSA that led to Lemierre's syndrome, an inflammation of the blood vessels - there was no sigh of relief. "We were wondering if he's going to make it," said Mauriello's father, Nick Sr.
It now appears that Nick Jr. indeed will make it. Doctors say his system has been bacteria-free for a week, meaning the antibiotics have done their job. He might even be able to go home for rehabilitation sooner rather than later.
This rapid and remarkable turnaround has been marked by powerful pendulum swings of emotion, beginning when Nick Jr. said his neck was hurting after a particularly busy stretch in mid-January.
"We figured it was because he wrestled 18 matches in eight days, which is a lot. We just thought it was wear-and-tear," Nick Sr. said. "We thought we had to rest him. I took him to a chiropractor. I took him to our regular doctor."
Messina sought out a neck specialist. "A muscle pull is what we surmised," the coach said. "We kept him out of the Islip meet [Jan. 28] and the Newburgh Duals [Jan. 29]. Give him a couple of days of rest because the leagues [Feb. 5] are what we want."
But a variety of doctors had no answers. X-rays were inconclusive. He was given Valium and other muscle relaxants. He received a cortisone shot in his neck. The pain continued; the mystery went unsolved.
He was taken to St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center in Smithtown on Jan. 28 but was sent home, according to his father. "Nothing structurally wrong with his neck," Nick Sr. said. "They thought it was a muscle spasm."
On Jan. 30, he returned to St. Catherine's, where it was discovered that he had bilateral pneumonia, Nick Sr. said. He was transferred that day to the emergency room at Stony Brook Long Island Children's Hospital.
"His condition worsened. His heart rate was going through the roof. He was lying in bed breathing at a ridiculous rate," Nick Sr. said. "Double-pneumonia or bilateral pneumonia was going on. When we first got here, we were on the floor [11-North]. Within an hour, the nurses there knew he needed more attention. They brought him to 11-South, the pediatric ICU."
That's when Dr. Rahul Panesar, a pediatric intensive care specialist, took over and correctly diagnosed the dangerous and rare condition.
"When I saw him, right away I knew he was infected. About as severe an infection as you can get," Panesar said. "The Lemierre's was interesting, from a medical standpoint, because it was so rare and because MRSA is not typically the bacteria that causes it."
Panesar said Mauriello's liver, spleen, kidneys and lungs were infected. He had to be put on a ventilator with a breathing tube. "It just got crazy from there," Nick Sr. said.
Messina said his other wrestlers were tested and none was infected. Nick Jr., however, was unaware of how serious his condition was. "He's lying in bed, he's coming out of sedation and he's wondering if he's going to be ready for the league meet [last] Saturday," Nick Sr. said. "He actually asked me if he's going to be ready. I'm thinking, 'Saturday's not the issue here, my friend.' But we didn't let on. We didn't want to tell him, 'Listen, you're fighting for your life here.' "
Mauriello appears to have scored an escape in that match. He responded well to four antibiotics all week and produced negative blood cultures, a positive outcome, every day since last Sunday. He is off the ventilator, breathing on his own, retaining fluids, sitting up, receiving friends in his room. "Very good progress," Panesar said.
As Mauriello's condition has improved, so have the spirits of his teammates. "I came to practice every day and the kids were selling pizza for Nick. They don't know what else to do, so they're trying to help," Messina said. " . . . They're young kids. They want answers."
When the Hauppauge wrestlers got some desired answers this past week, their demeanor improved. "They're laughing. They're so excited," Messina said. "The good news is blowing their minds. They're asking, 'When is he coming home?' They want to plan something special. It's a great feeling."
And a grateful feeling, too. "The lows were when we didn't know what was going on, and it lasted for several days," said Messina, Hauppauge's coach since 1981. "The highs were all the support Nick got. Then the results got better and better and the highs got higher and higher.
"This didn't turn tragic."