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Miller: Valencia's Brian Chen back on the court after frightening battle with fungal meningitis
The kid always had been healthy, full of life and desire and passion, his answer to any challenge on the basketball court generally the same:
Bring more energy.
That’s how he came into the world, in fact, eager and on a fast break, Brian Chen born in the car on the way to the hospital.
But now here he was, checking into a game, a game in June, during summer league.
Chen ran down the court and back. Once. He turned to the bench and – breathless – asked to come out.
“I had no choice,” he says today, smiling. “I was done.”
And this moment marked a victory? Yes, a victory, a return as triumphant as anything he could have imagined.
That’s how frightening life had become at one time for this otherwise healthy teenager, a kid who never asked more from his beloved sport of basketball than the opportunity to play the game.
“I have so many dreams for him,” Chen’s father, Shih-Chou, says. “The dreams are still there. He’s just on a little different path now.”
The path diverted exactly one year ago, and did so violently and without warning. Chen began suffering chest pains and headaches, the back of his skull throbbing. He was exhausted and feverish. One day, he broke out in hives.
He continued to play for Valencia High, but his minutes had to remain short, Chen appearing for 60- and 90-second bursts. Soon enough, even those brief stretches proved to be too much.
After a few weeks of his symptoms coming and going, he woke up one night with his worst headache yet and a hellish fever, and this is a kid whose temperature once reached 106.
A visit to the emergency room resulted in a diagnosis of viral meningitis, which no one questioned until a few days later when, during another trip to the emergency room for a completely different pain, Chen was told his appendix had to be removed.
That’s when a surgeon at CHOC took a closer look at a rash that had formed on Chen’s arm and didn’t appear to be going away. Tests were ordered and a new search for answers began.
“We were completely lost,” Shih-Chou Chen says. “We had no idea what was going on. We were hoping something magical would happen. And it did.”
A team of CHOC doctors determined that Chen was suffering from a more rare disease, fungal meningitis.
During his three-week hospital stay, Chen underwent four spinal taps to drain fluid from his brain. He was in and out of intensive care more than once.
The headaches reached a point where he was seeing black spots, and the Tylenol gave way to morphine.
“I was pretty scared,” Chen says. “I stopped thinking about playing basketball and started thinking about my life.”
Doctors finally decided operating on Chen’s brain was necessary to relieve the pressure, the magic showing itself when the surgery was a success. A shunt was inserted and will remain with Chen the rest of his life.
Even though he was forced to stop thinking about basketball, Chen’s teammates at Valencia did enough thinking for him and about him.
They visited often, one of them, Andrew Davis, stopping by almost every day and insisting on watching the Super Bowl with Chen.
His coaches visited, too, and sent text messages. On the Tigers’ Instagram page, a team photo was posted showing everyone holding up two fingers, representing Chen’s jersey number.
“You love when kids are supportive of each other,” Coach Dean Yoshimura says. “That’s what we preach at Valencia. We want them to care about each other as athletes but as people, too.”
Davis’ mother, Rachel, decorated his room with get-well cards from everyone at school, everyone, from the principal on down.
“When my teammates would visit, they’d tell me how much they missed me and wanted me back,” Chen says. “In the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘OK, I want to get out there and play with them.’”
It took him a few months, until the summer league, to resume going 5-on-5, a comeback that officially began with that first labored trip up and down the floor.
Chen, 17, is now preparing for his senior season at Valencia, still fighting fatigue – doctors have told him his energy will be the last thing to come around – and facing a drive to Bakersfield every six weeks for checkups.
But he is back, taking charges and diving for loose balls, doing the things that good point guards do, even if his coach sometimes finds himself cringing with concern.
“He only knows one way to play,” Yoshimura says. “He has to play hard.”
Chen is back and with the greatest of high school hopes, helping the Tigers win their league – a simple goal, but also, seeing where Chen was last season, a significant one.
And why wouldn’t he aim to be the best? Despite missing six weeks of school, despite suffering from double vision and nausea when he first left CHOC, despite a full load of AP classes, Chen still received straight A’s, just like he always has.
“It’s been hard for the whole family, but he’s the one who has been strongest through the whole thing,” says his father, Shih-Chou now the one smiling. “He’s just a strong kid.”
A strong kid, strong enough to navigate a detoured path, one winded stride at a time.
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