By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
---- — PENDLETON — Pregame warm-ups never used to bring tears to Kim McDermott's eyes.
She's been around basketball all her life, playing for a state championship at Highland in 1987 and ending her career at Indiana State. And she currently runs the basketball program at the Anderson Sports Center.
As part of the Darner family, she's witnessed her share of outstanding moments on the hardwood. But few things move her more strongly these days than the sight of her eldest son, Sean, taking the court with his Pendleton Heights teammates.
"To see him back out there, every time I go to a game and watch him warm up, it makes me want to cry," McDermott said. "And I realize, if he wasn't so lucky, he might not be here."
* * *
On Nov. 20, Sean McDermott was diagnosed with a life-threatening infection, one his parents were told has just a 20 percent survival rate. The illness is so rare doctors at Riley Hospital for Children said this could be the only case his pediatrician ever sees.
And the Pendleton Heights junior likely never will know how he contracted it.
It could have happened when he bit the inside of his mouth. Or cut his nose. Or suffered a paper cut.
What is known is that McDermott caught a severe staph infection that left him unable to stand up from his couch and caused his mother to rush him to the emergency room.
McDermott had made another trip to the ER three days prior after feeling pain in his knees and excess fatigue that hadn't subsided 24 hours after a three-hour Saturday practice. The prognosis was dehydration, and he was sent home to rest.
By the time McDermott returned to the hospital, the pain had spread first to his left wrist and then to his hip.
"I woke up just in a lot of pain, and I went downstairs," he said. "I actually got out of bed, got on the couch, took a nap and when I woke up I couldn't move. I was just kind of stuck there. My mom had to help me up to get me to the hospital."
Soon McDermott could no longer walk, and the situation became dire. He was sent by ambulance from Community Hospital in Anderson to Riley in Indianapolis, and his mother feared the worst.
"I can tell you honestly, when he was taken from Community to Riley, I did not think he was going to make it to Riley," Kim McDermott said. "That's how bad it was."
When Sean arrived in Indy, Pendleton Heights boys basketball coach Brian Hahn was waiting for him. And each of his teammates soon followed.
McDermott spent eight days at Riley as doctors attempted to determine how far the infection had spread. A previously undetected heart murmur was discovered but was found to be unrelated. If the pockets of infection were big enough, however, an operation would be necessary.
"It was really scary, not knowing what I was going through," McDermott said. "But I'm fine now. So that's all that matters."
Before he was released, doctors weighed several options for an outpatient treatment plan. One included the use of antibiotics through an IV for six weeks. The recovery time after such a grueling regimen would have ended McDermott's basketball season.
But he responded well to early treatment, and doctors took another path. McDermott's quick recovery was attributed in part to his fitness level, largely the result of Hahn's conditioning program for the Arabians.
McDermott returned home and continued to wear an IV bag for eight days. After that, he took 3,000 milligrams of a strong antibiotic orally for about a month.
He attended Pendleton Heights' opener Nov. 30 against Delta on crutches because he still could not walk without extreme pain. But it was worth the effort.
"It was helpful just because I missed my teammates," McDermott said. "They came to the hospital and helped me out. Just being able to be there with them was helpful."
* * *
Incredibly, McDermott was back on the basketball court Jan. 2 against Pike — the school his grandfather, Alan Darner, guided to two state championships as head coach.
His first shot was a 3-pointer from the corner and drew nothing but net.
"It was a good feeling just being back," he said, "and getting the first one to go, yeah, it felt pretty good."
McDermott finished with 14 points in 17 minutes, but it was clear he still had a long way to go.
In his fifth game back, at Shelbyville on Jan. 28, McDermott scored a season-high 28 points. And he's played close to 30 minutes in every game since.
He estimates he's only at about 85 percent, but the Arabians are happy to take whatever they can get.
"Obviously, it makes the team better," Hahn said of having McDermott back on the floor. "But it's just, all of us, it's just a perspective-gaining experience. Just to understand and appreciate the opportunity to be here on a daily basis. So we're just happy he's back, that he's got the chance to play, that he's playing well and that he gives us a chance to be competitive as we head into the sectional."
McDermott averaged 14.8 points per game in the regular season, hitting 33 percent of his 3-point shots. He's still battling fatigue because the infection sapped so much of his strength.
Once the season ends, and he can get back on a regular weightlifting regimen, McDermott believes he'll regain his strength and get back to being himself on the court.
In the mean time, Hahn is attempting to monitor McDermott's exertion in practice and in games, but he's averaging 27 minutes because he's such a critical part of the team. And he wouldn't have it any other way.
"I'm getting there," he said. "Still sometimes I'll feel pain flare up, but it's just something I have to fight through. And it's something I'll work through."
* * *
Kim McDermott has been in touch with parents of other players in the area who have missed time this season because of illness or injury, and this ordeal has given her even deeper empathy for their plight.
She said the family can't thank folks in the Pendleton and Lapel communities enough for their prayers during Sean's recovery. And she's still clearly moved by gestures by the teams at Frankton and Yorktown, who prayed for Sean after practice.
But mostly she feels blessed to still be able to attend games. To watch her son enjoy his time with his teammates every night.
"It's easy for everybody to say it's just a game," she said. "But, to him, it's not."
That's what drives Sean's comeback.
He remains one of the most heavily recruited players in the state of Indiana. He was scheduled to attend IU's home game Sunday against Ohio State, and every coach who showed interest in him before the illness has kept in touch this season.
But it's not glory that makes him fight through the pain. It's not a looming sectional date against rival Anderson at New Castle on Wednesday. It's not the chance to make headlines and continue climbing up the basketball ladder.
It's all about the team.
"His teammates have been very supportive all the way through, and it's just his desire to be with his teammates," Hahn said. "To be with the team. To get back to playing and doing what he really loves. We've got a great group of kids, and they've been very supportive. Everybody wanted him to get back healthy, and everybody wants him to do well."
Kim McDermott appreciates the care Hahn showed for her son.
He was at the hospital every minute that his schedule would allow, and he never talked about basketball. His only interest was in seeing Sean get better and get back to a regular life.
All along, it was Sean who couldn't imagine a life without basketball.
"Everything just seems to matter a lot more now," he said. "I didn't know if I was going to play again. Just every game, every practice, I just look forward to it and know that it could be the last. So you have to take advantage of it."
Online Watch Sean McDermott and Pendleton Heights coach Brian Hahn tell the story in their own words in a video at heraldbulletin.com.