He's known as Super Mario, not just for his impact on the court, but for his impact in the classroom.
Now forced to the bench, it's friends and family that are making a difference in the life of Mario Miller as he awaits new organs.
Miller, a junior at La Crescent High School, was a two-sport athlete for the Lancers and a promising AAU basketball prospect as recently as last summer. But what started as pneumonia quickly turned into a collapsed lung, and then another, and ultimately a fight for survival.
According to Michelle Miller, Mario's mother, the first signs of trouble came from the throat. Mario came home gasping for air, and so she took him to the doctor to see if he had asthma. Football coaches also noticed Mario was losing weight and experiencing more fatigue.
In early September, both lungs collapsed and Mario was taken to Saint Mary's Hospital in Rochester, Minnesota. Emergency surgery kept him alive, but he was sedated and paralyzed for more than two months, Michelle said.
Mario has had nearly a half dozen operations since, and though alert and under his own power, now requires intensive, 24-hour care and breathes through a lung bypass machine, known as extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO). The extra stress on his heart means he'll now need both a lung and heart transplant.
"It's just a matter of time before they can have this ready," Michelle said. "I'm just praying and hoping it comes soon."
Dr. Jonathan Johnson, Medical Director of Pediatric Heart Transplant Program at Mayo Clinic, said Mario's diagnosis was a combination of cryptogenic organizing pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome, essentially filling his lungs with fluid and making breathing difficult.
Performing surgery of both organs at once is extremely rare at Saint Mary's. Johnson said they perform only one or two a year. It also means Mario could possibly wait longer for the transplant because he needs both organs.
Meanwhile in La Crescent, support from the community began soon after the news of Mario's hospitalization. Students and staff put together a fundraiser during the football season to raise funds for the Miller family.
The school's Fellowship of Christian Athletes group began selling bracelets and paper footballs with the opportunity to write personalized notes to Mario. Once basketball season began, basketballs replaced the footballs on the walls of the high school. They will be collected and presented to Mario in a scrapbook one day. The money will be available for Mario once out of the hospital, said Patty Gurholt, science teacher and lifelong friend.
"The kids have been fantastic," Gurholt said. "A lot of community support, generated by the kids and the school, because they love him."
Gurholt also frequently drives Mario's classmates to the hospital to visit. They talk about school, sports, and life. Recently, they celebrated the birthday of Mario's brother Phillip, who also plays on the basketball team.
Junior Alex Dryden designed the logo for the paper basketballs, and can be found just outside the doorway to Mac Dahl Gymnasium at many home games selling bracelets and notes and collecting donations.
She said class just hasn't been the same without Mario.
"Mario's has just been a big impact on my life, school life. He's really funny and just a hilarious person," she said. "It just made my heart sink. He's talented sports-wise. That his sports career is deeply affected by this, kind of just sucks. I feel bad."
Despite his extended hospital stay, Gurholt and the school district are trying to keep Mario in touch with the basketball team's progress. The district has purchased equipment so Mario can watch La Crescent's games online from his hospital room. Back in December, Fillmore Central gave Mario a weblink to watch the two teams play.
When friends come to visit, Mario offers coaching advice on past games, Gurholt said.
"He was doing all of the 'why did you do this, and why did you do that? Why didn't you stop? Why didn't you pass of to this person?' It was fantastic," she said. "I was like, 'you go coach.'"
Other teams have offered their support throughout the season as well. Stewartville bought warmup shirts for both teams to wear on December 4. The shirts read 'up for the challenge' and featured Mario's uniform number, 3. P-E-M sent an inspirational poster, the Wisconsin Badgers men's basketball team sent a signed poster and basketball, and the Minnesota Gophers football team sent a signed football. These items, and dozens of cards and posters, can be found across Mario's hospital room.
Not one to call out for attention, Mario was touched by all the support.
"It kind of shows how much people actually care about me and they support me so much and throughout things," he said. "I didn't expect half of La Crescent to be doing things and sending me stuff like that. Even the other schools, I don't even know who they are. It's pretty cool I guess."
Mario uses the letters as motivation to recover. Once bed-ridden, Mario now does physical therapy twice a day, and hopes to begin tutoring lessons to make up for lost time in school.
"Mario's been a trooper throughout, Johnson said. "The best days for me were when we started to see Mario walk again. When you're on that machine, You're pretty down, you have a lot of pumps and hoses and things coming out every which way. It's really amazing to see him get up and really now he's doing laps around the unit there, and almost doing rehabilitation purely on his own will, which is really amazing."
Perhaps Mario's biggest supporter of all is his family. Michelle has been there every step of the process to laugh, cry, and cope with the day-to-day realities of this frightening experience.
"I've been talking to Mario about it. I said, 'I understand how you feel sometimes, but you've got to force yourself and push yourself, you're my strong survivor.," she said. "Only the strong survive."
Michelle said she wants to thank the hospital and the La Crescent community for its continued support.
"I can tell that he was a good sports player because everybody loves him," Michelle said.
If Mario receives the organ transplant, Johnson said patients typically spend two to six weeks in the hospital to recover. It is one of the most critical moments in the journey to recover, as a wrong dose of medication at the wrong time could be fatal as the new organs adapt to the body.
Mario is anxious to receive his transplant, and to return to school with his friends.
"Being around the drama's kind of funny. Just being with friends again like normal," Mario said. "It'll be a story to tell and just let everyone know that pushing yourself isn't going to hurt you. Just keep going and stay in there."
Donate Life America is a popular website to answer questions about donating organs. Click here for more information.
The La Crescent basketball team has entered the second half of its season. Click here for a schedule of games.