Wrestling to Breathe
"I'd rather come out every time and lose than not wrestle at all. It's just fun to be out here.

Wrestling to breathe
Sean Kochanski hasn’t let his health keep him off mat
By JOE PETRUCCI jpetrucci@leader.net

Time is running out on Sean Kochanski again.

His Feb. 12 bout against Blue Ridge’s 125-pounder has only just begun, but the internal clock of the Greater Nanticoke Area sophomore wrestler is already winding down.

About a dozen diseases and major operations have bombarded Sean’s life since he was a baby. He was 3 years old when he underwent open heart surgery to repair a hole in his heart. “I don’t like this,” Sean’s mother says of her son’s bump up from the 119-pound weight class.

“It’s only six pounds,” says Sean’s brother A.J.

Sean is fighting hard, but gets lifted and slammed to the mat for a takedown. His mother covers her eyes, looks away, then glances briefly toward the mat. She exhales desperately.

A.J. gets his brother’s attention and motions for Sean to “go,” to get something started before time runs out, even though there are nearly five minutes left in the bout.

After earning an escape point with 3.9 seconds left in the first period, Sean takes an injury timeout.

“He’s not going to be able to finish,” says A.J., a former Nanticoke wrestler who graduated in 2002 and taught his younger brother how to wrestle. “He’s got maybe one minute left.”

It won’t even be that long. After trying for 36 seconds in the second period to turn his opponent to his back, Sean begins breathing heavy again and calls an injury timeout. The result is another loss by injury default.

“I like (wrestling) because you can’t depend on anyone else,” Sean said after the recent loss. “It’s you and somebody else out there. If you lose it’s your fault and if you win it’s all you. ... You have to deal with your own choices.”

Sean’s choice, though difficult for some to comprehend, is to compete in the face of a lifetime’s worth of medical problems. Sean’s choice, which has led to little glory, is to do something he loves despite doctors and administrators in his own school believing otherwise.

Sean’s choice is to use up every last breath he has living life on his own terms, until he can’t breathe anymore.

“I’d rather come out every time and lose than not wrestle at all. It’s just fun to be out here.”

Sean’s medical history includes asthma, Raynaud’s Syndrome, Vasovagal Syncope, vocal cord dysfunction and costochronditis. They are conditions foreign to most but all too familiar to Sean’s parents, Monica and Al.

So far, Sean has lived to breathe, and wrestle, another day.

“You have to keep fighting, keep fighting until you can’t go no more,” said Sean, who has won only twice this season, via first-period pins. That’s the only real chance he has to win, to clamp his opponent quickly.

“You just have to put your fears behind you and keep going, keep looking forward.”

Blacking out during matches

Nanticoke coach John Breita raced out to the mat after Sean’s final injury timeout against Blue Ridge.

The coach implored him: “Breathe through your nose.”

By that time, Sean had regained his breath and walked off the mat. A teammate rushed to Sean’s father in the stands to get a bottle of Gatorade to give to Sean.

Sean could have stayed at 119 and taken a forfeit victory, but he wanted to wrestle at 125. Although he lost, Sean again escaped without severe injury. It was another scary episode, but not nearly unnerving as two recent incidents that were a result of his most recent diagnosis.

At the Tunkhannock Kiwanis Tournament in late December, Sean blacked out while wrestling in his first match after experiencing chest pain.

“I thought it was his heart,” Monica said. “We took him in the back, he laid down for about an hour and I said, ‘Come on, we’ll go home.’

“He said ‘No, I’m wrestling.’ ”

Sean wrestled his second match, but the chest pain and shortness of breath returned.

On Jan. 28 at Meyers, Sean took a 7-3 lead, but blacked out again on the mat. This time, he had struggled to regain his breath and an ambulance was summoned. Emergency technicians administered oxygen, which helped Sean enough to avoid another trip to the hospital and walk out of the gym on his own power.

“I was so scared, man,” said Sean’s teammate and close friend, Rich Kaminski. “I thought he was seriously in trouble.”

So did Nanticoke administrators. An hour prior to the team’s next match the following week, Sean was told by school officials he couldn’t wrestle.

Sean’s father met with Nanticoke Principal Thomas Kubasek the next day. Al insisted his son wanted to wrestle and that Sean could control any health problems during the bout on his own.

“That’s what (doctors) tell him, to live a normal life,” Monica said. “How do you take a 15-year-old and tell him he can’t do anything, (yet) live a normal life?”

Nanticoke Athletic Director Jerry Bavitz said that as long as Sean could control his condition -- and that officials, trainers and coaches were aware of his condition -- the school is happy to see Sean continue doing something he so clearly enjoys.

“All anyone was ever concerned with that he was able to wrestle and not put himself in any kind of danger,” Bavitz said. “His parents have monitored him very closely, and I know the boy has a system worked out with the coach if he’s struggling during a match.

“We think he has a pretty good handle on it. We’re happy that he’s well and wrestling.”

Illness plays a part

On Jan. 4, a doctor from Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey believed the chest pain was caused by costochronditis, a condition that developed as a result of Sean’s open heart surgery 12 years before.

He blacked out because of Vasovagal Syncope, a condition caused by an inappropriate reflex in the nervous system that dilates blood vessels and slows the heart rate.

Sean’s shortness of breath stemmed from vocal cord dysfunction (VCD), in which the vocal cords seize and produce an airflow obstruction in the larynx. The VCD wasn’t recognized until the past year because asthma closely mimics it.

Medications (he takes at least six kinds) and a lot of fluids (particularly prior to and after matches) have been prescribed. The doctor also instructed Sean to “think about his breathing the same way he must think about wrestling moves.”

After the match against Blue Ridge, Sean admitted how difficult it can be to juggle the two.

“I’ll just be training and working hard and concentrating on breathing. Out on the mat it’s hard to do because you’re thinking of what moves you’re going to hit next.”

Before his recent problems with breathing, chest pain and migraine headaches, Sean went 11-2 as a freshman on the junior high team. He dreams of placing at districts and moving on to the state tournament in Hershey. Breita called Sean one of his best wrestlers.

“It’s hard because I know I can (win),” Sean said. “I’ve just got to know when (to stop) because the last time, the EMS had to come in and everything. I have to know my limitations and just hope for the best.

“People ask me why don’t I just quit. I don’t know. I’m just not a quitter.”

A fighter since 3

It’s difficult to explain Sean’s lifetime of health problems, which started when he was 3 weeks old. His parents were told he had bronchial pneumonia, was colicky and had heart murmur he’d outgrow in six months. But when he was 3 years old, a hole was discovered in Sean’s heart, which had to be immediately repaired.

Doctors expected to see a limp, quiet child when they visited with Sean prior to his open heart surgery in August 1992.

Sean surprised them by hiding under the bed.

“They couldn’t believe how active he was,” Al said.

Monica added, “They said he was a fighter and thank God he was a fighter because they said normally kids don’t make it past 3 with a hole that size.”

School is more of a chore than for most kids Sean’s age. His health problems require numerous trips to the nurse’s office and bathroom and, as a result, Sean has to make up a lot of work when he misses classes. He also had to quit his job recently as a dishwasher because of painful carpal tunnel syndrome.

Sean likes to ride his dirt bike and hunt. The former pursuit has proved dangerous, as well. In November 2003, Sean broke his femur in a dirt bike accident and had a titanium rod inserted in his leg.

Four months later, he won his weight class at a local AAU tournament.

Sean has tried most every sport, even golf. Doctors strictly forbade football and Sean once blacked out during a race as a member of the Nanticoke track team. When he came to, he remembered he was winning.

While some have frowned on Sean’s wrestling, he has plenty of support. In addition to his family and teammates, Sean is close to assistant coach Ed Alessandrini, one of his hunting buddies.

“I worry all the time when he’s out there (on the mat),” said his friend and teammate Kaminski. “Actually, it kind of makes me nervous. He’s been a friend of mine for a long time and I don’t want him to get hurt. I give him a lot of credit for going out there and helping the team.

“I don’t ever want to have those problems and I’m thankful for what I have. He’s a hard worker and it should inspire everyone else and it does.”

Another assistant coach was trying valiantly to secure an oxygen tank -- he was late for the Blue Ridge match because of his pursuit -- for Sean to use prior, during and after matches. Ideally, it would extend his time on the mat and allow Sean to compete like he and others believe he can.

Sean had a visit with an ear, nose and throat specialist two days after the Blue Ridge match to get the doctor’s official recommendation for the on-site oxygen and some treatment options.

“We’ve discussed it with him,” Al said. “He’s not left out of anything when it comes to his health. He has a say in it.

“If he wants to do it, he can do it, but now he knows (when) to quit. As long as he doesn’t have any more major episodes, I’m happy.”

Two days after the Blue Ridge match, an ear, nose and throat specialist in Palmyra told Sean there was no cure for the VCD that hinders his breathing, and a physician would not prescribe oxygen for matches.

Instead, Sean’s only choice is to re-teach himself how to breathe from his stomach. Sean, the doctor said, won’t die from the VCD, but it can cause him to pass out.

That could happen at the District 2 Class 2A tournament at Scranton Prep tomorrow. Sean, however, chooses to remain hopeful he can defeat his ailments, as well as opponents.

“I say whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. The fact I know I can do it ... I don’t know, maybe something might come up, the doctors might find something to actually cure this and make it better. Why quit if I can just keep going?”

Sports || GNA