Surrounded by a large group of friends, family members and teammates, Belleville East High School senior Kaylah Rainey moved another step closer to fulfilling her dream of playing college basketball on Wednesday when she signed her national letter of intent with Northwestern University.
One of the best players in the Southwestern Conference from the moment she stepped on the court as a freshman, the Lancer’s point guard is know for he speed, quickness and leadership. She has been the team’s on-court leader while driving to the rim and knocking down 3-pointers.
But as Rainey signed her name to the scholarship that will give her a chance to compete in the Big Ten while getting an education from one of the top academic schools in the nation, she did so with the knowledge that her high school basketball career is over.
Diagnosed a little more than two weeks ago with Anomalous left coronary artery, a heart defect she was born with. Rainey will undergo heart surgery Nov. 30 at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. Rainey’s dad, Dr. Lawrence Rainey, said she will be sidelined for 12-14 weeks.
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But as the snow fell Wednesday, Kaylah Rainey officially became a Northwestern Wildcat.
“Yesterday (Wednesday) was probably the best day I’ve had. I was surrounded by all of my family, friends and teammates and to have them be a part of that special day ... it made me feel good. And even though two weeks ago I got some bad news, the signing ceremony really helped me out,” Rainey said.
“This being my senior year probably made it even worse because I really wanted to finish it out with the people I started with. We still have big goals to accomplish this season and I know they’re still going to do it. They have a big chip on their shoulders.”
The Lancers open the season Saturday at the O’Fallon Tournament. Lancers coach Amanda Kemezys said the news of Rainey’s condition stunned the entire Lancers athletic program.
“We were obviously devastated to hear the news of Kaylah’s heart condition and that she has to miss her senior year. It breaks your heart for any high school athlete to have to miss their senior year due to injury, let alone one like Kaylah who has meant so much to our program,” Kemezys said. “We will no doubt miss her on the court but know that she will still be with the team every way possible and be a great added leader on the bench.
“More than anything we are so thankful that her doctors were able to catch this when they did. Her health and safety is first priority so we will be keeping her in our thoughts and prayers as she undergoes her surgery. We are also happy that it looks like she will return to full health afterward and be able to realize her dream of playing basketball in college at Northwestern University.”
Off the court since April after battling an injured PCL and recovering from a fractured wrist, Rainey was looking forward to the start of practice on Oct. 29. When she went for her annual preseason physical days before practice began, Rainey and her father, Dr. Lawrence Rainey were told something didn’t sound right.
Getting the news
“The first doctor we went to said ‘Kaylah, I hear a little something, but its nothing. You’ll be ok. But we’re going to go through your primary doctor and get a referral. That’s what we have to do,” Lawrence Rainey said. “We weren’t expecting anything. Kaylah and I went over to get clearance. We were there they said that we will probably clear you but since you are here, lets do an electrocardiogram.”
Minutes later, Lawrence Rainey and his daughter got the terrible news.
“It was terribly shocking. It took the legs from underneath me when we got the news,” Lawrence Rainey said. “We had been through so many of these routine phyiscals ... we thought that it was going to be like the others so it was just Kaylah and myself who went.
“When we got the news it was just devastating.”
Kaylah, although devastated and concerned about her future, attended the Lancers practice hours after getting the news.
“When they (doctors) first started talking I didn’t really know what was going on so I wasn’t listening But after she (the doctor) told me that I couldn’t play this season, I stopped listening because that was all that I was really thinking about,” Rainey said. “When I went to practice that day I kind of broke down. I told the team that I wanted to be with you guys. But its going to be alright. The season is going to be alright. I’m still with them. I still go to all the practices.
“It was a blessing that I found out and I was happy, but I was still sad.”
Diagnosed with Anomalous left coronary artery
What Rainey has Anomalous left coronary artery, a heart defect which developed before she was born.
“What is happening right now is that coronary artery is between two muscles and when Kaylah exerts, those muscles expand and they collapse in on that artery,” Lawrence Rainey said. “What they (the doctors) will do is they will take the malformed left cornary artery and place it where it should have been at the time when the heart formed. What it will do is basically give her a new heart.
“We’ll be consulting with the chief cardiologist, who specializes in pediatric malformations at Children’s Hospital, and so we feel like we;re in excellent hands..”
The recovery time is 12-14 weeks and Rainey will be allowed to return to school three weeks following the procedure.
“The remaining nine weeks are for the scar and for her to heal. From that point on the heart is fine,” Lawrence Rainey said. “ She will be allowed to shoot around. She just can’t have any contact. The primary concern’ is Kaylah’s health. That’s all that matters.
“In fact when we got the diagnosis and they told us what was necessary, I asked the doctor if she needed to stop playing basketball. because she is much more important than playing basketball He said if she wishes to pursue her passion and live her dream of playing college basketball then the procedure is necessary for her to be able to do that.”
The diagnosis is a blessing, family says
While Rainey will be a huge loss to the hopes of the Lancers in the 2018-19 season, the Rainey’s say it is a blessing that the condition was found in time.
“I really didn’t notice anything until after we were told what was wrong,” Rainey said. “There were some chest pains and some shortness of breath. I didn’t think anything of it. I hadn’t really played very much since April and I just thought that I just needed to get into shape.”
Since his daughter was diagnosed, Lawrence Rainey has done considerable research into Anomalous left coronary artery.
“I found out about 1 percent of the population has this condition. My reaction was ‘why us God,” Lawrence Rainey said. “There was no warning. That’s the weird thing about this condition. In some cases there are symptoms and other times there are none. Kaylah had not expressed any symptoms. But when we researched it and talked to the doctors we found that some of the symptoms start to onset at late adolescent and early teens.
“And there are some situations where kids don’t get to even see a doctor. They just collapse on the court. We’re fortunate that this is the way things worked out in our case. It’s a little bit of a setback but we are fortunate.”
Looking forward to Northwestern
Rainey, who turns 18 in late February, hopes to be cleared by her birthday. When that happens, she will have four to five months of training to get back into basketball shape to begin her career as an NCAA Division I student-athlete.
“Northwestern has been so supportive of Kaylah and our family through this entire ordeal,” Lawrence Rainey said. “The coaching staff has reached out and the school has offered their medical resources with Northwestern University Hospital being No. 3 in the nation in the country that deals with these types of issues.
“Like I said, we are so very blessed.”
Kaylah Rainey will continue to be a huge part of the Lancers basketball program this winter. She plans on attending practice and of course will attend the games.
But she is also looking forward to being a Northwestern Wildcat.
“I just know that I have to work harder if want to have the best comeback I can have and to be better than I was before my injuries. I want to be able to do all I can for Northwestern both and off the court and keep working to help them become a better team.
“I know they’re having a big season and its only going to keep going up from here.”