Jalen Cuello remembers the day his life took a frightening turn — one that looked to end his basketball career forever.
“It was in practice in October and we were running a lot of suicides,” said Cuello, a senior on the Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy team. “Then when I was running, I just felt this tight pain in my chest. Then I kind of crunched over and the pain got worse, and I grabbed my chest and everything started to go black. I didn’t pass out but everything went black and I just stopped running.”
Cuello stopped, gave himself a minute to feel better, then started running again. He didn’t say anything to his coach, John Reingold, or his teammates. But when Cuello went home and told his mother about what happened, she wasted no time taking him to New York-Presbyterian Hospital to find out what was wrong.
After an initial electrocardiogram came back abnormal, Cuello and his mother, Wendy Martinez, received a terrifying diagnosis.
“They thought he had myocardiopathy, and they told him he was at risk for sudden cardiac death,” Martinez said. “They said that he should no longer play sports.”
Myocardiopathy is a chronic disease of the heart muscle, and is the same heart ailment that caused the sudden deaths of former Loyola Marymount University basketball star Hank Gathers and former Boston Celtics star Reggie Lewis in the 1990s.
“That hurt,” Cuello said. “There were a lot of nights I’d cry myself to sleep. I’d cry in the shower. I’d be angry at my mom, I’d be angry at the doctor, at my dad, Coach Reingold. I was just looking for someone to blame.”
What followed over the course of the next several weeks was a seemingly endless array of tests doctors lined up for Cuello. If it wasn’t a test, it was another doctor visit. Or it was both. It never seemed to end.
“I had several EKGs, maybe four or five,” Cuello said. “Then about a week after an EKG I’d have an echocardiogram, then I’d have a stress test. Then they’d put me on a treadmill and put a tube in my mouth to see how much oxygen I was getting, and also check my heartbeat. There was also a CAT scan. I did a lot of tests.”
All the while, to keep his sanity and to remain close to his teammates, Cuello became an unofficial coach for RKA. He would join Reingold and assistant coach Andrew Brereton on the bench, cheer on his teammates, and offer encouragement during games. Sometimes it took his mind off his medical problems. Sometimes it didn’t.
“There were days when I came to games and I’d be super-excited,” Cuello said. “I was happy. I was getting to be part of the team. But then there were other days, like when we had a scrimmage over Christmas break, I walked into the gym and just started crying. I cried for about a half hour in the locker room. Then I just came out and sat on the bench and was quiet.”
By mid-January, Cuello believed he would never see the basketball court again. But then Cuello met with Dr. Leonardo Liberman, and suddenly, there was light at the end of the tunnel.
“He went over everything with us and he talked with all of Jalen’s doctors,” Martinez said. “With all the tests they did and all the times we were at the hospital, all they found was that Jalen would have irregular EKGs. There was nothing else.”
Liberman, the director of pediatric electrophysiology at New York-Presbyterian, finally cleared Cuello.
“Jalen’s OK because they took a bunch of measures to make sure he was all right,” Martinez said. “Thank God he’s better and he’s well.”
Cuello was at a doubleheader scrimmage game with the girls basketball team when he got the news.
“My mom called me and said, ‘What are you up to?’ I said nothing, just watching the game,” Cuello said. “Then she said. ‘I just got off the phone with Dr. Liberman. He said you’re cleared to play.’ I just started jumping around on the sidelines. They’re still playing the game but I’m jumping all around and giving everyone high-fives. And yes, I started crying that time, too. There was a lot of crying that whole time.”
It would be a few days before he would suit up, but that day finally came in a scrimmage at Clinton. RKA fans came by the carloads to witness Cuello’s emotional return.
“I checked into the game with about five minutes left in the first quarter, and all our fans and parents stood up and they just clapped for about 10 minutes for me,” Cuello said. “I cried again.”
Cuello tries not to think about those dark weeks when doctor and hospital visits were his unfortunate pastime. Now he just wants to look forward.
“I feel good,” Cuello said. “I just try not to think about it too much, all the sadness and crying. I’m just happy to be back. Ready for the playoffs.”