Kaylah Rainey: After everything I've been through, my heart is set on playing basketball

Neeta Satam for ESPN

Northwestern basketball recruit Kaylah Rainey spent most of her senior season recuperating from open-heart surgery. Now she's ready to play.

I've had one goal for the past three months: to play basketball with my teammates at Belleville East High School. If that doesn't sound like a big deal to you, just wait. My parents don't want me to play tonight. But it's my senior season, it's the playoffs, and any game could be my last. My teammates and I have been talking about winning a state title together for as long as I can remember.

Since the end of November, I've spent 12 days in the hospital and puked more times than you can count. Fluid built up around my heart. I sprained my ankle. And, oh yeah, I had open-heart surgery. But I'm ready to play tonight and in every game until we take home the trophy. Who's going to stop me?

Here's something else you should know: I don't want to play just for me. I want to do it for everyone out there who is going through adversity and isn't sure if they can come back to whatever it is they love the way I love basketball.

You really think I'm going to let anything get in my way of suiting up tonight for our first playoff game? No chance.

I'm off to Northwestern next year to play college ball, and I want to look back and remember my time in high school the way I'm supposed to, the way I dreamed it. I want what happened to me to be a part of my story, but I want my return to be the defining moment.

So how did I get here? Here it goes ...

I fell in love with basketball when I was a baby. I used to watch my older brothers play. As soon I got a ball in my hands, it just felt right. I've spent so many hours, days, years working on my game trying to get better. Basketball already has given me so many incredible friendships and taken me so far, and I hope it one day takes me to the WNBA.

I played most of my junior season with a broken nose, and our season ended in regionals with a missed layup at the buzzer. The ball spun around the rim like it was in slow motion, and then it fell out, and our season was over.

A few months after that, I tore my posterior cruciate ligament in my left knee, and I missed the entire AAU season. Finally, in early October, I was told my knee had healed and I could play again. I was so excited -- I felt like I hadn't played basketball in forever. I couldn't wait to be with my teammates for our senior season. Most of us have been playing together since middle school, and this is our last chance to win the Illinois Class 4A state title.

Just like every year, I went for a physical before the start of the season. It was supposed to be a quick and easy appointment. But the doctor heard a murmur when he was listening to my heart.

The next thing I knew I was at St. Louis Children's Hospital. The cardiologist said I wouldn't be able to play basketball this season. I didn't hear much after that.

I was diagnosed with an anomalous left coronary artery, a heart defect I was born with but never knew I had. I never felt dizzy. I never fainted. Truth is, I'm known for being one of the fastest players on the court. There couldn't be something wrong with my heart, right?

But the doctor said my heart couldn't pump the amount of blood it needs to properly function because my left coronary artery, which carries blood to my heart, is connected to my pulmonary artery instead of my aorta. She told me I needed open-heart surgery to connect my artery with my aorta -- as soon as possible. She kept talking, but my thoughts kept drifting to basketball. I didn't care what anyone said. I would play with my teammates again. I told myself that over and over.

Neeta Satam for ESPN

Almost as soon as Kaylah Rainey was diagnosed with an anomalous left coronary artery, she started plotting her return to the court.

The surgery was scheduled for Nov. 30 -- about six weeks after I got the diagnosis. I kept going to school and practice every day. I couldn't do much, but I liked being there with the team and helped out any way I could -- even if that just meant encouraging from the sideline. My heart rate would spike whenever I exerted myself at all, so I was told to take it easy. I didn't worry about it too much, but I think everyone around me was on edge.

Rather than thinking about the surgery, I tried to focus on the silver linings, such as the movies I would watch during my recovery, starting with "Love and Basketball" and "Step Brothers," or the snacks I had seen during my first visit to the hospital. They had the big bags of pretzels, not those little ones.

One of my teachers said, "If you've been playing this well with this condition, can you imagine how good you'll be once it's fixed?" I hadn't even thought about that, but I liked the sound of it.

During a hospital visit ahead of surgery, the cardiology team told me it would likely take eight to 12 weeks before I would be able to play basketball again. I did the math and knew that meant I had a chance of playing at the end of the season, and knowing there was a possibility of being out there gave me a goal. While winning a state title is still the ultimate dream, the first step for me was to get back out there with my teammates.

I was scared to tell the coaching staff at Northwestern, but I called the head coach, Joe McKeown, to let him know. I had no idea how he would respond. But he was really supportive and said he was going to have Kate Popovec, an assistant coach, call me back. Turns out she needed heart surgery before her senior season in college. I called her and texted her a lot. Everyone at Northwestern has been great, and I know I made the perfect choice for next year.

I decided to let everyone at Belleville East know about the surgery during my signing-day ceremony at school. The season was starting the next day, so I knew people would be wondering why I wasn't playing. I wanted them to hear it directly from me. With so much out of my control, it felt good to be able to tell my story. My family and I were shocked when so many people reached out with similar stories. I had no idea how many people I know who have been through something like this, and it was nice to know how much support we had.

I tried to keep my life as normal as possible until the very last minute. I even read a poem I wrote, called "Good and Bad," out loud to my creative writing class the day before surgery. I had done such a good job pushing the surgery out of my thoughts that it didn't start to feel real until I was getting my blood drawn and getting chest X-rays. All of a sudden it hit me: I'm getting open-heart surgery tomorrow.

But I reminded myself this is the only way I can play basketball again: It's worth it, Kaylah. It's worth it.

Neeta Satam for ESPN

Kaylah Rainey had to ask visitors not to make her laugh because the post-operation pain was so severe.

On Friday, my parents and I made the 25-minute drive to the hospital around 5 a.m. My mom and dad did a great job staying strong for me, but I think they were scared. It was a quiet ride.

One of my best friends surprised me at the hospital after we finished the registration process. That was the only time I cried. I couldn't believe she was there. But she calmed me down, and we laughed at our same old inside jokes. She told me she would see me after it was all over, and that made me smile.

I remember being wheeled into the operating room. I was staring at all of the lights above me -- there were so many lights -- and then someone telling me they were going to knock me out. "I wonder what that will be like," I thought. The next thing I knew, I was in a room with my family all around me. I was groggy. But it was over.

The surgery took six hours. As soon as it was done, the surgeon told my parents (I was in no state to be told anything) they had been able to do a smaller incision than they had thought. The best part about that? It would be a slightly easier recovery, and I could possibly be back on the court in six weeks.

Of course, there were a few things I had to do before that, starting with standing and walking. It's nearly impossible to explain the pain after open-heart surgery, but trust me when I say, it's like someone standing on your chest and then someone else repeatedly punching it at the same time. In those first few days, even standing and walking hurt.

My parents and my five siblings -- I'm the youngest -- were by my side. My teammates all came to visit the very next day. They brought me balloons, and I had to tell them to not make me laugh too much because it hurt so badly when I did. The hospital gave me a heart-shaped pillow to squeeze anytime I laughed or coughed, but it was too hard, and I didn't like it.

I got to go home on Monday -- just three days after surgery. Instead of being pushed out in a wheelchair like most people are, I walked myself out of the hospital. I was so excited to begin the healing process and get back on the court.

I thought the worst was over.

I was wrong.

Neeta Satam for ESPN

Kaylah Rainey had no use for a wheelchair on her way out of the hospital. But a ride in a shopping cart at the mall was totally in play.

The day after I got home, I started throwing up. Again and again. I had thought the pain from the surgery was bad, but the constant gagging made it so much worse.

I couldn't get comfortable. Lying in my bed hurt. I moved to the couch, then the floor. I thought I could tough it out, but the vomiting wouldn't stop. After three days, my parents took me to the emergency room.

We were there for about 12 hours doing every test imaginable. The doctors discovered a lot of fluid around my heart. I just learned this recently, but my parents were told it could be congestive heart failure. I know now that they were terrified and dreaded breaking the news to me. I was admitted to the hospital again, and for two more days, we had no idea what was going on. All I knew was the pain. And vomit. I lost 14 pounds in the 10 days after surgery.

Everyone had praised me for my positivity during my first hospital stay. Not this time. I didn't want to get out of bed. Everything hurt. All I wanted to do was sleep. My parents and some of the nurses were worried I was showing signs of depression, and a social worker even came to talk to me.

That was my lowest point.

Finally, after seeing specialist after specialist, we got a diagnosis of not one but two conditions that are rare but serious side effects of surgery. The fluid around my heart was pericardial effusion and a condition called ileus prevented food from moving through my intestines, which caused my vomiting. While we knew some side effects were possible, we had no idea about either of those.

I was allowed to go home after a week in the hospital. I was feeling a lot better, but I was scared I would have to come back again. I was also worried that the complications had pushed my return to basketball back, but I was still on track for six weeks. I couldn't believe it.

We went straight to my school after leaving the hospital. I wanted to surprise my teammates at our game that night. I hadn't seen them since they came to visit me right after surgery. When I walked into the locker room, everyone kept calling me a good-luck charm. I guess they were right -- we won by 13 points.

On Christmas Eve, I felt strong enough to go shopping with my cousins at the Galleria in St. Louis. We were walking around and having so much fun when I looked down and realized my ankles were super swollen. My shoes barely fit. My cousins did what anyone would do: They put me in a shopping cart and pushed me around the mall for the rest of the day.

Neeta Satam for ESPN

What started as a routine physical in October turned into three months of tests and hospital visits.

Four-and-a-half weeks after my surgery, I went back to the hospital for check-ups with the surgeon and cardiologist. The stitches on my chest hadn't fallen off yet, so they had to take those out. Otherwise I was healthy. I was even cleared to start participating in light practices. I knew I was ready, but it was amazing to hear it. It felt like the goal I had been trying so hard to reach was one step closer.

But before I could get too excited, my cardiologist made sure I knew I could participate in drills but couldn't scrimmage or anything like that. She said she might let someone else in this situation do that, but she knew I was way too competitive to ever pull myself out if I wasn't feeling well. I couldn't really argue there.

I went back to school the following Monday, just a few days after my classmates returned from winter break. I had missed about three-and-a-half weeks, but I didn't feel like I was too far behind. Some teachers had given me a little work to do while I was home, and others allowed me to finish the semester with the grade I had earned up to that point.

The grade I cared about most, though, was more of a pass/fail, and that was the one I would get on the stress echocardiogram the following week because it would determine if I was ready to play. With that test, doctors monitor your heart and blood pressure while you're on a treadmill. It sounds easy, and it is at first, but the speed and incline increase every few minutes, so it's pretty intense by the end. I was holding onto the rails for most of it. At the end, as soon as I got off the treadmill, technicians took ultrasound images to see if everything was working the way it should.

It takes a while to get the results, so I went back to school. That afternoon, my cardiologist called my dad, who called me. I heard him say something about the blood flow being excellent, but I was really just focused on what came next:

Kaylah, you can play again.

I was working out with the trainer and my coach and had my phone on speaker, and they started cheering at my dad's news. "Now I'm really going to make you work today," my trainer said. For the first time in so long, nothing was wrong with me.

And just like that, I had a game to get ready for. We had a weekend tournament starting in two days. My parents, coaches and I decided I would play no more than two minutes per quarter in the first game. My mom was nervous about how physical the games sometimes get, but I tuned that out. I didn't want anyone to take it easy on me. I was prepared for any contact that came my way.

My coach asked me if I was ready. "I don't know," I thought. "Am I?" I couldn't wait to find out.

Neeta Satam for ESPN

Even before her open-heart surgery, point guard Kaylah Rainey was known as one of the fastest players on the court.

When I subbed in during the first quarter, the announcer said, "This is her first game back since open-heart surgery," and everyone stood up and clapped for me. It was so cool to have that support on the road.

Twenty seconds later, I stole the ball and scored a layup. The crowd was roaring. I could see my entire family standing up and cheering. My mom was crying.

I played nine minutes and had four points and two steals. But most importantly, we won 58-38. I was tired, and my legs were already sore when we left the gym. But it was so worth it.

We had two more games over the next three days, and I played a little bit more in each one. We lost to all three of those teams earlier in the season, but this time we beat them all by double digits. We won the tournament, and I couldn't have scripted a better return.

I made my home debut the next week in a game against East St. Louis, our rival. We had beaten them in overtime earlier this season, so I knew it would be a close game. I was back in the starting lineup, and I was introduced last. As I high-fived my teammates, I heard this: "She's a 5-7 senior, a McDonald's All-America nominee who's returning to her home court for the first time since having open-heart surgery just six weeks ago. Please welcome back Number 0, Kaylah Rainey."

It was surreal. I love my school. I am so grateful for all the support. I tried not to get too emotional. I knew the best way I could say thank you was with a win, so I tried to focus on the game.

We won, and I played about 26 minutes -- the most in my return thus far. I couldn't get much going and scored only four points, but I contributed far more on defense. When I drove the floor and scored my first points in the third quarter, I could feel the crowd with me. My dad was apparently running up and down the bleachers in celebration, while my mom held up a "Welcome back, Kaylah" sign. My only regret from the night is that I didn't have more baskets like that, but you have to start somewhere.

I had high expectations after that game, and I got into a groove during our next game. But then I sprained my left ankle during the following game against Normal Community High. I was going up for a layup, and the defender fouled me and fell on my ankle. I had to come out of the game and was later on crutches.

A few days after that, my chest and my back started killing me, and I was struggling to breathe. My parents rushed me back to the ER. We were there for nine hours and more tests. "Not again," I thought.

Neeta Satam

Kaylah Rainey is still hoping for the dream ending to her senior season at Belleville East High School.

We were petrified something was wrong with my heart, and I couldn't shake the fear of being told I couldn't play basketball again. This time I caught a break. The doctors said it was muscular pain. I was dehydrated and showing the early signs of a virus, which was causing a higher heart rate than normal.

I was so happy when they let me go home that night. The next day my doctor gave me an inhaler for the chest pain, an injection for the back pain and instructions to rest. I knew I couldn't play, but I refused to miss Senior Night later that day. It was bittersweet standing on the court for the final time at Belleville East. I wanted to play so badly. I tried not to get too sad about it, but it was hard.

Our opponents allowed us to have a ceremonial first tip so I could be on the court with my teammates. It meant everything to be out there, even if I couldn't actually contribute.

That brings us back to tonight and the first game of the playoffs. We're seeded fourth, and our first-round game is against Quincy. We haven't played them before, but we're confident we can beat any team -- all teams -- if we're playing our best.

My parents want me to rest, but I refuse. It has been two weeks since I played, and I have been taking it easy. I started practicing on Wednesday, and my ankle is feeling much better.

I was at the doctor's office a few days ago, and a woman in the waiting room recognized me from the local news. She started crying. "I've been keeping you in my prayers, and I'm so happy to see you back," she said.

I want to play for people like her, who have cheered me on and kept me in their thoughts. I believe God had this bigger plan for me, and there was a purpose to what I've been through, and basketball is the vehicle for it. I hope I can be an example for anyone out there going through something similar. Don't give up. Keep going. You never know what you can achieve.

So that's it. You're probably thinking it's silly for me to play, and maybe in some ways it is. But I've worked so hard to be back out there with my teammates. I need to play tonight. I want to show the world you can come back after something like this. After everything I've been through, I feel like I can do anything.

There's a state championship to win, and I'm going for it. Who's going to stop me?

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