PORTAGE PARK — After waking up from a 12-hour surgery to replace his heart, Mike Partipilo had only one thing on his mind — bowling.
And for the next eight months, the thought of returning to his favorite place — the bowling alley — motivated the Norwood Park teenager through rigorous rehabilitation.
"The toughest part was not being able to bowl," said Mike, a St. Patrick High School junior.
Mike, 17, who finished 18th in the state as a sophomore, recently finished his junior campaign with a 170 average, just missing the state finals.
Justin Breen details Mike's long recovery:
When the season started in November, Mike did not have the strength to walk his usual three steps before releasing a 14-pound bowling ball. But as time ticked on, Mike, a left-hander, could take one, then two, and finally three paces before letting the ball go on its curved path toward the 10 pins.
"It’s a miracle recovery, just to have everything work properly for him, and for him to be able to walk on this earth," said St. Patrick athletic director Brian Glorioso, who's worked at the school for 37 years. "I've never seen anything like this here. You get kids who have broken arms, legs, hips from a contact sport, but never — never — in my life have I seen anything in my life like this before."
'I didn't know how sick I was'
Mike has been bowling since he was 9 years old. His parents — Michael, a Chicago Police lieutenant, and Margaret, a registered nurse — bought his first bowling ball when he was 14. He now has nine different balls, between 14 and 15 pounds.
Mike's high game is 288, which started with 10 straight strikes. His state showing as a sophomore gave him the mindset that his last two high school seasons could see Top-10 finishes, if not an overall title.
But that changed quickly in March, when Mike felt sick and visited his pediatrician. His heart rate was checked; it was 240. Mike was taken to the emergency room at Lurie Children's Hospital in Streeterville, where he was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle. On March 28, he was told he needed a heart transplant.
"I didn't know how sick I was," he said. "I had all these nurses and doctors taking care of me. It was a roller coaster ride."
Mike said he was put on life support while waiting for a heart. A match was found April 23, and he went under the knife for 12 hours. When Mike opened his eyes, he had a footlong scar in the middle of his chest and a beating new heart.
"When I woke up, I couldn't move, but I was still alive and breathing and everything," Mike said.
Mike was at the hospital until June 19, then moved next door to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where he stayed until July 23. There, he began to regain his strength — walking, lifting and performing other skills to get back into shape. He had dropped from 200 to 130 pounds after the surgery.
The physical therapy continued through Nov. 12 at other training centers. Also that month, he was finally cleared to bowl.
"[Bowling] was a lot harder than people would think," said Mike, who now weighs 170 pounds. "You bowl with a 14-pound ball, and you can barely walk, and you try to pick up the ball, and it's really hard."
A 'lover of the sport'
High school matches are usually three games per bowler, and at the start of the season, St. Patrick coach Peter Dougherty would let Mike bowl the first game, take the second off to recover, and then reinsert him into the lineup for the final game. Eventually Dougherty said Mike became the team's third-best scorer.
"Mike is a competitor and lover of the sport," Dougherty said. "We were absolutely delighted with his performance. Mike's story is a particular heartwarming victory lap for us."
At school, St. Patrick administrators helped Mike reschedule his classes so classrooms were closer together and he wouldn't have to walk as far between periods.
Principal Jon Baffico said Mike's story "is nothing short of a miracle."
"His determination and faith are truly remarkable," Baffico said. "We feel fortunate as a community to have Michael alive and prospering."
St. Patrick's bowling team and Mike's family also have set up several fundraisers for his medical bills since he left the Rehab Institute. At one, he met his favorite bowler, Jason Belmonte.
Mike doesn't know where his new heart came from, but he said he'll have an opportunity to reach out to the donor's family in the coming months.
Asked what he'd say to them now, Mike said: "I'd really thank them. I'm very sorry that happened to them, but I'd thank them a lot."
Mike, who wants to bowl in college and professionally, said the last 11 months have matured him beyond his years. Most of all, he feels fortunate to be alive ... and have the chance to continue bowling.
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