Story and photos by Walt Johnson
The Youth Services Center basketball program has been a rewarding experience for many young athletes over the years. Young players have learned the game of basketball under a special program with special coaches and staff members. This year a special player may teach many people lessons that go far beyond the basketball court.
Brandon Waga recently came to Colorado Springs from Kentucky and is a member of one of the youth center’s 7-9-year-old teams. On the outside, he is just like every other child in the program, excited to be playing the game, energetic to the point of making adults tired just watching how much energy he can expend and loving the game of basketball. On the inside lies a different story and an amazing story of courage and perseverance rarely seen at his tender age.
Waga was born with a congenital heart disease with only half of his heart working normally. He is body is only operating with the right ventricle and he has a pacemaker implanted in his body to regulate his heart beat. In his short lifetime he has undergone four open-heart surgeries, a series of angioplasties and the pacemaker surgery. He also loses all his nutrients through his stools and has to take medication to overcome that in addition to medicine to control his hyperactivity. And he only wants to do one thing: be a normal child.
Waga was not a normal child when he was born. His kind of heart ailment afflicts very few people and he was not even diagnosed with the condition until 5 days after he was born. Waga went into cardiac arrest at five days old. That was when his ailment was detected and has been treated since. For the first five years of his life, Waga was pretty much confined to his home because he could not afford to get childhood colds or other ailments that normally can be treated with over-the-counter drugs. Because of his heart condition and the many surgeries he has had to endure, he was always in a position where he had to keep up his strength to get ready for his next battle, according to his mom, Carmen.
She said getting Brandon through his surgeries and other ailments was tough but a battle she was never weary of fighting because Brandon showed so much courage and fight. That courage and fight led him to get better after his surgeries and then Brandon turned his sights to fighting another battle, being like the rest of the children his age. “Brandon would always say to me I can go out and I can play (like the other kids). He felt like he didn’t have any friends and that made him feel bad about himself,” Carmen said.
Upon arriving at Fort Carson, Carmen, who says she trusts her son to understand his limitations because he has proven many times to be right, decided to see just how much recreation activity Brandon could safely take part in. She talked with his’s cardiologist and explained to him her son’s desire to play in the youth programs like other children. The cardiologist gave her the OK to allow Brandon to play with some stipulations and the birth of a youth sports career took shape.
“Putting Brandon in this program has really helped him overcome some of the depression issues he has. Since he has been in the program, he feels like he has friends. We just moved here to Colorado and he was able to do better at sea level than he does here, but it has been a benefit to him to be in the program here,” Carmen said.
Those limitations include Brandon play limited minutes, monitoring him to see when he starts to wear down and having an oxygen machine available in case he starts having oxygen deprivation. Brandon’s coach, Javarius Dixon who is aware of his condition, monitors him at all times but sometimes wonders if this young man really has any limitations on the basketball court.
“After I understood what the disabilities were, I just rode with having him on the team. I have coached other kids that have disabilities so I wasn’t hesitant to give it a shot. What really was a pleasant surprise for me is he hustles more than anyone else on the team,” he said.
“He is a great kid and he can hang with the best kids in the program. He loves the sport and he is an all-around player. He will also let me know when he needs water or needs a rest so I don’t treat him any different from the other players. From the first practice, I realized he was smart enough to let me know when he is tired or needs to sit down,” Dixon said.
For now, all is well for Brandon as he is enjoying as good a health as he can. He is enjoying being a part of the youth program and enjoying being an average young man. The future may hold a heart transplant and more surgery for a warrior who will show you the stitches in his chest from the previous surgeries with a smile that would melt a glacier and a sparkle in his eyes that would light up a dark night. Brandon truly takes one game at a time and is having the time of his life doing it because as his mother says, “he just wants to live and be here with us.”