CHS hoopster on the road to recovery with help from community

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CHS junior Xavier Machuga (center) and Coach Ryan Gordy with the Canton Character Crew at last week's Tailgate X event. (Ed McDonough photo)

CHS junior Xavier Machuga (center) and Coach Ryan Gordy with the Canton Character Crew at last week’s Tailgate X event at Canton High School. (Ed McDonough photo)

As someone who makes friends easily and feels at home on a basketball court in front of hundreds of spectators, Xavier Machuga is not the type who usually shies away from social situations.

But the rising Canton High School junior was admittedly nervous leading up to last Friday’s “Tailgate X” event at CHS — a celebration sponsored by the Canton Character Crew that was intended to serve as a homecoming of sorts for the young man they call “X” as well as his official “reintroduction” to the school community.

As Machuga explained recently when asked about his impending return to school, “I’m not necessarily nervous about the [school] work, but seeing my friends again I’m kind of nervous about because the last time they saw me I was not like this.”

By “this,” Machuga was referring to his current physical condition following a hemorraghic stroke he suffered in early May. A life-threatening and truly life-altering medical emergency, the stroke caused severe bleeding in his cerebellum that required immediate surgery and left him unable to talk, walk, or barely even move for a period of several weeks. He later spent two and a half months in a rehabilitation hospital — he was just released on August 18 — and he still faces several more months of daily physical, occupational and speech therapy as he works toward making a full recovery. Even then, doctors have warned him that he may never again be able to play basketball competitively.

Yet it is a testament to Machuga’s determination and overall positivity that he has progressed as far as he has to date. It is also a testament to his standing within the CHS community that the students and staff have rallied around him so fiercely and made it clear that they have his back.

And that was pretty much the thinking behind last week’s Tailgate X celebration, which offered students a chance to officially welcome Machuga back prior to his return to school later this fall.

Ryan Gordy, Canton Character Crew advisor and Machuga’s basketball coach and mentor, said the idea was to have a nice, low-key event prior to the season-opening football game to help everyone reconnect. “And after that,” said Gordy, “he’s just back and a part of our community, and we’re all here to support him and love him.”

And despite his nerves and the questions he had around how he would be received, Machuga said he found it to be a “great event” and “very welcoming.”

“It was awesome to see some familiar faces that I haven’t seen in months,” he said. “Overall, the celebration was a success, and it is something I will remember for the rest of my life.”

***

When Machuga moved to Canton from Connecticut in his freshman year of high school, he had no trouble fitting in and quickly found people he could relate to. He also found a home on the basketball team and forged an instant bond with Coach Gordy.

His life was about as normal as it could get until all of a sudden it wasn’t. Even the day he had the hemorrhage was a typical Friday, recalled Machuga. He came home from school, chatted with his mom, Katrina Grice, and was expecting to have a friend over later that afternoon. But then he started experiencing what he thought was a headache, and soon the pain started to worsen and he began feeling faint, prompting his mother to call 911.

Once in the ambulance, Machuga lost consciousness, and he didn’t regain it until well after the surgery, spending time in the ICU at Mass. General Hospital in a medically induced coma. An initial CAT scan confirmed the brain bleed, although the damage to the blood vessels was so significant that doctors still cannot confidently pinpoint the cause. Their best guess, said Grice, is that it was due to an arteriovenous malformation (AVM), which is a cluster of abnormally formed blood vessels that are prone to rupturing.

When Machuga did finally regain consciousness, Grice said he could barely move. “He could barely squeeze your hand,” she said. “He could barely move his toes. Just very, very slight movements.”

He also was completely nonverbal and in fact did not begin speaking again until he was transferred to Spaulding Rehab a month after his surgery. Prior to that point, Grice said she had serious doubts as to whether he would ever recover, and the unfairness and cruelty of it all felt too much to bear at times.

“Speaking to the doctors when he was in the ICU,” she said, “when the nurses were saying, ‘He’s going to come out of this. He’s going to come back and visit us one day. He’s going to walk through the door.’ I didn’t believe it. Just seeing the state that he was in I didn’t even think it was possible.”

***

Four months removed from those darkest days at Mass. General, the progress that Machuga has made has been nothing short of amazing. He now even travels on his own via bus to Watertown five days a week for outpatient rehab.

“Now I can move everything,” he said. “I can feel everything. Now I can walk. I can do a lot compared to day one at least.”

Machuga said he still has trouble speaking and problem solving, but he is improving in those areas with the help of his therapists. “It’s just a little slower than it was before, but I am still in tuned,” he said. “I can still understand. I can do everything, but it just takes a little more time.”

Xavier Machuga (center) with his mom and younger brother

Xavier Machuga (center) with his mom and younger brother

Machuga is also eager to return to school, and despite the doctors’ skepticism about returning to organized basketball, he is operating with the mindset that he will be back on the court in a year.

In the meantime, he plans to stay connected to the team this season and will attend as many games as his schedule will allow. Gordy, for his part, hopes that Machuga will remain heavily involved from a leadership standpoint and thinks he can still have a big impact this year from the sidelines.

Gordy also recently announced that they have dedicated the 2017-18 season to Machuga and will wear new warm-ups that say “Soldier X” on the back. “The way we see it,” said Gordy, “he is an integral part of our basketball program and he’s been a soldier through this entire experience.”

Machuga has also surprised himself throughout this process. “I didn’t even think I would ever come this far,” he said.

Both Machuga and his mom were also quick to thank the Canton community for all of its support and well-wishes, which helped carry them through these challenging past few months.

“I don’t even know if I have a word for it; it’s just amazing,” said Grice. “I mean friends, teachers, family of his friends, whether it be just cards, coming to wish him well, thoughts, prayers. They had a food train running while I was in the hospital. They were bringing us meals. I mean this is probably one of the tightest communities I have ever seen and that was truly a blessing for us.”

Grice did acknowledge the high costs of medical treatment and the financial toll that this has taken on her family and said she is grateful for every donation and kind gesture that they have received. Grice’s sister has established a GoFundMe page to help with medical bills and stressed that financial assistance is in “urgent need” and that “no donation is too small.” Those who would like to make a donation can do so at gofundme.com/striveforx.

But no matter what the future holds, Machuga said he has gained a lot of strength as a result of this ordeal and he now feels like he can face any obstacle that comes his way.

Grice, an admittedly proud mother, most certainly agrees. “It’s definitely been a long road,” she said, “but this is one tough kid right here.”

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