The future seemed set for Dylan Kalambay. By the time he hit his mid-teens, the basketball prodigy from Brampton, Ont. was travelling as far as China and Italy with Team Canada and garnering attention from Division I universities in the United States.
Then, in the fall of 2019, a nagging cough started to grow worse.
“There was one game where I just couldn’t play because it was too much,” Kalambay said.
“They did some vitals and then that’s when they realized that my resting heart rate was about 200 beats per minute. That’s when they were like, ‘Okay, well, that’s not normal, we have to bring you to the hospital.”
After a seemingly unending march to clinics across the province, the 16-year-old finally heard the words that would alter everything: Dilated Cardiomyopathy.
The disease was slowly stretching the muscles of Kalambay’s heart, making them thinner and unable to pump blood efficiently.
He quickly underwent surgery to install a Left Ventricular Assist Device, but the procedure didn’t make a meaningful impact and his name went on the waitlist for an organ donation.
“There was no way of really sugar-coating it. There was a very high possibility that I didn’t play basketball again and hearing that kind of crushed me,” Kalambay recalled. “At that point, basketball had become a pretty big part of my identity. I think hearing it was pretty hard, just because it felt like I lost a part of myself.”
Five months later, Kalambay got the call — a heart and an operating room were waiting for him.
In the days and weeks following the procedure, he would nearly collapse from exhaustion from simply walking across a room but he made no secret of his ultimate goal.
“After each session of doing cardio, I’d have to be wheeled out just because, like I was so tired,” Kalambay said. “Eventually it was like, I could do those. Then I was able to walk back to the car. Little milestones like that just kept getting a lot easier. And then eventually it was like, ‘Okay, well I’ve got to start like working on like my basketball skills’. So I would go train, I would try and find open gyms — even outside, I would just go shoot.”
Nine months later, Kalambay went from barely walking to stepping back onto the basketball court for a game at Ridley College — a private prep school in St. Catharines.
Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse heard about Kalambay’s story and came to watch him play and halfway across the country, the University of Calgary Dinos took a new interest in the determined athlete.
Dinos head coach Dan Vanhooren toured Kalambay around the city and introduced him to potential teammates.
After a team workout, veteran Ezoah Santiago approached Van Hooren and urged him to bring Kalambay on board.
“There’s a smoothness in his movements and in his athleticism that I think can really shine as we build on his body and we build a skill set,” Van Hooren said. “When you study a guy like Dylan, I think you’re looking at a player that brings maturity, brings a new perspective, has a natural athleticism and really the sky’s the limit. The question just becomes, how hard can we push him? And what’s that balancing act with his heart?”
Now in his rookie season with the Dinos, Kalambay feels he’s found a balance in listening to his body, knowing when to push himself and communicating with the team’s medical staff.
While he is viewed as one of the key pieces in the Dinos rebuild, some things will always be different for Kalambay.
He’ll take drugs for the rest of his life to prevent his body from rejecting the transplanted heart. He must extend his warmups to slowly ramp up his heart rate ahead of a game.
But when the going gets tough, he reminds himself of what had to happen for him to get to this point.
Kalambay met Logan Boulet’s family in Lethbridge last week to learn more about the other side of organ donation and share his wish to one day meet the family of the person who gave him a new chance at life.
“I want to be able to do right by the person that had lost their life in order to save mine,” Kalambay said.
“I think that that’s something that will always be in the back of my mind, no matter what I’m doing. I want to make sure that they will be proud of me — If we ever meet one day.
“I think being an organ donor is one of the most courageous things that anyone can do and I think that if you’re willing and able, it’s something that you should do.”
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