M

ichael Sanzone had two questions when he was taken off the respirator.

First, did he finish his ruck march?

And second, could he still play lacrosse?

“That broke my heart,” said Lisa Sanzone, his mother. “Because I didn’t have an answer.”

"> A Griffin's Survival: Michael Sanzone Thriving After Near-Death Experience | USA Lacrosse Magazine

COURTESY OF CANISIUS ATHLETICS

Michael Sanzone, an assistant captain for Canisius, was back on the field just two months after collapsing due to heat stroke.

A Griffin's Survival: Michael Sanzone Thriving After Near-Death Experience


M

ichael Sanzone had two questions when he was taken off the respirator.

First, did he finish his ruck march?

And second, could he still play lacrosse?

“That broke my heart,” said Lisa Sanzone, his mother. “Because I didn’t have an answer.”

Sanzone, a senior midfielder at Canisius College, had decided after his sophomore year to enter the school’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps for the U.S. Army. On July 15, at about the 10-mile mark of a 12-mile ruck march at Fort Knox in Kentucky — an endurance test in which you carry a large amount of weight in a backpack while traveling a long distance, the last mission of ROTC boot camp — he collapsed due to a combination of heat stroke and dehydration.

“I remember most of the march,” Sanzone said. “Up until the end there, where it gets a little blurry. Next thing I know, I was waking up in the hospital.”

Rushed to Hardin Memorial Hospital in Elizabethtown, Sanzone lay unresponsive for more than a day before he regained consciousness in time to ask those two questions. The answers were complicated. He wasn’t anywhere near out of the woods.

“It was this sort of this roller coaster of events in two weeks,” said Don Sanzone, Michael’s father. “What’s going on with his kidney function, his liver function? He actually had pneumonia as well. They drained his lungs twice. He had a 106-degree fever at one point, because he had an infection, which ended up being MRSA. ... Every day, something was going on.”


“All I hear my wife say is, ‘Do I need to speak to the chaplain? Why do I need to speak to the chaplain?’ I’ve got to tell you, as soon as you hear that, your heart jumps in your throat.” - Don Sanzone


The most severe complication was an occurrence of rhabdomyolysis, which is caused by the death of muscle fibers. Their contents are released into the bloodstream, which can result in kidney failure or, in rare cases, death. Doctors found high levels of creatine kinase, an enzyme found in muscles, in his bloodstream.

Lisa and Don Sanzone were at the beach about two hours away from their home in Wilmington, Del., when they got the call telling them Michael was in the hospital. Details were murky at first, but the seriousness of the situation set in when they got another call on the way to the airport.

“I’m driving,” Don Sanzone said. “All I hear my wife say is, ‘Do I need to speak to the chaplain? Why do I need to speak to the chaplain?’ I’ve got to tell you, as soon as you hear that, your heart jumps in your throat.”

Sanzone was in critical care for 13 days at Hardin before being transferred to the Walter Reed military hospital in Bethesda, Md.

Lisa, who works as a radiation therapist, monitored his progress. But even she, despite coming from a medical background, wasn’t always sure what was happening to her son.

“Unfortunately for Michael, every time he would take one step forward he would get thrown a curveball,” Lisa Sanzone said.








The doctors weren’t always certain, either. Sanzone’s primary physician told his mother it kept him up at night, wondering if he made the right decisions.

Sanzone was prescribed antibiotics, underwent dialysis twice and spent hours in an ice bath to bring his fever down. Patients diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis are able to make a full recovery with prompt treatment. In time, Sanzone started getting out of bed and walking around the hospital.

“When he was starting to get better, he tried doing leg raises in the bed,” Canisius coach Mark Miyashita said, “which was typical of Michael.”

Miyashita, an assistant coach for the Canadian national team, was in Israel for the FIL World Championship when Sanzone collapsed, but got in contact with the Sanzone family as soon as it was feasible with the time difference.

“My first thing was, don’t worry about lacrosse,” Miyashita said. ”This is about health first and foremost.”

The Sanzones didn’t let their guard down until Michael could go home.

“You just think, if one thing went a different way, it could have totally affected the outcome,” Lisa Sanzone said. “From how quickly he was treated to his health going into it. If he hadn’t been as healthy or strong, it could have been a different outcome. That’s what’s terrifying.”

Once stabilized, Sanzone was transferred to Walter Reed, where he spent six more days before coming home. The most noticeable change was his strength. At the start, he needed help doing the smallest things, like putting on his socks. He’d lost 30 pounds since entering the hospital.

“I couldn’t even walk around for a week or two,” Sanzone said. “I needed a system for everything. I had a walker. It was hard to get in and out of bed. The difference in strength was insane.”




COURTESY OF THE SANZONE FAMILY

Michael Sanzone joined Canisius' ROTC Army program after his sophomore year, and he was stationed in Fort Knox, Kent.


Sanzone made it his goal to improve every day, whether that meant doing the steps or making a meal on his own. His weight started normalizing, and soon he was able to get back to doing some physical activity.

Amazingly, a few months later, Sanzone not only returned to the practice field, but also he participated in Canisius’ fall ball scrimmages under close surveillance by the school’s medical staff.

“I didn’t think I’d be playing at this point at all,” he said. “The leaps and bounds I’ve made has surprised me, my parents and everyone around.”

Miyashita didn’t expect Sanzone would be on the field yet, either. He figured he would be limited to stick work in the fall until they could start ramping up his activity in the winter.

“We limited his minutes,” Miyashita said. “But the fact that he’s on the field competing pretty much every day in practice and scrimmaging is a far cry from being unresponsive in July and on the verge of death.”

Sanzone was thrilled to return to a somewhat normal life and regain his independence. “Making food for myself, going to class, going to the library, it just helps,” he said.

Miyashita, a British Columbia native with a box lacrosse background, takes a cue from the indoor game when it comes to his captains. One player has the “C” stitched on the chest of his jersey, while others wear “A’s.” The team announced in October that Michael would serve as captain for 2019.

“He embodies everything that we want in a young man that’s a part of our program,” said Miyashita, whose Griffins are coming off a Cinderella season in which they won the MAAC championship as a No. 4 seed, shocking Detroit Mercy on a stolen faceoff outlet that turned into an open net goal in overtime. “He’s never going to get outworked. In terms of the effort, he’s a lead-by-example guy, but he also knows when he needs to talk and how he needs to talk. He’s definitely the shepherd of the team.”

Sanzone’s health scare did not at all sway his intentions about the ROTC or joining the Army. He’s planning on finally completing his ruck march in Buffalo soon.

His family, meanwhile, is trying to take a lesson from the experience. They emphasized that all athletes, no matter how young or physically fit, should be aware of hydrating and staying at a safe temperature.

Sanzone takes a more philosophical route.

“One thing that comes to mind is just cherishing every day,” he said. “You never really know how fast things can change.”