MAHOMET — Sam Mitchaner’s medical condition was difficult to understand. Complex. Rare enough that he had a team of doctors working with him from birth.
There was nothing complicated about how Sam wanted to live his life despite dealing with a congenital heart defect.
“He just pushed and pushed and pushed,” said Kevin Mitchaner, Sam’s father. “He wore us down. He wanted the next thing and the next thing, and it all just inspired us to keep pushing and pushing and pushing.”
Sam got involved with everything he possibly could in a little more than 16 years on Earth — everything permitted despite his body containing a built-in pacemaker from his 15th day of life onward.
The Mahomet-Seymour sophomore died on April 22 at age 16, after a battle with endocarditis that dated back to October 2019.
His location of death was OSF St. Francis’ Children’s Hospital of Illinois in Peoria — the same place Sam was born and spent many days handling various complications of his heart defect.
And yet, family and friends don’t remember Sam as someone who spent his days confined to a hospital bed.
A Facebook group, titled “Sam Mitchaner, MVP” and boasting more than 300 members, attests to that.
The page is filled with words and photos pertaining to Sam’s exploits in school, golf, theater, choir, boating, appreciating the Chicago Bears and so much more.
“It humbles me to see how he touched people’s lives,” Kevin said. “It’s brought me joy over the last week to see how much he was loved and looked up to.”
Sam’s heart defect is known as double outlet right ventricle with transportation of the great arteries. The main issue stemming from this is oxygen-poor blood being circulated through the body, thereby “causing the heart to work harder,” according to Boston
Within 10 days of his birth on April 1, 2004, Sam underwent open-heart surgery. His first pacemaker was placed less than a week later, as doctors recognized extensive surgery on such a young organ would make Sam 100 percent pacemaker-dependent.
Kevin and his wife, Chris, were able to take Sam home on April 24 of that year.
Morgan Coyle, one of Sam’s five older siblings, said Sam had new pacemakers put in when he was 3, 5, 8, 13 and 15 years old. There was a major scare at age 5 when Sam went into cardiac arrest after a wire broke in his pacemaker not long before Christmas. Forty-five minutes of CPR was required to keep Sam alive.
“There was really no road map for what went on with Sam,” Kevin said. “Each situation that has came up, (doctors) have had to confer and study and call around really decide ... the next move.”
What the Mitchaners did know, Kevin said, was they would try to “get him every experience we could get him.”
“If you didn’t know the situation he was in, he seemed like just a normal kid,” said Cydney Mitchaner, another of Sam’s sisters. “He could run around the yard playing. He loved to shoot baskets. ... I think a lot of us even took it for granted.”
Sports were a major part of Sam’s ability to retain his childhood despite a heart defect.
As a 10-year-old in 2014, Sam received a chance from Make-A-Wish Illinois to attend a Bears’ practice and game. He also got to meet the team’s star quarterback, Jay Cutler, who was Sam’s favorite player.
Kevin said the family tried to meet Sam’s passion for football by taking him to stadiums around the country, including Dallas’ AT&T Stadium and Denver’s Empower Field at Mile High.
“At age 10, he could name every single quarterback for every single (NFL) football team,” Coyle said.
Then there was golf.
The perfect non-contact sport for Sam to give a go, considering Cydney played for the Mahomet-Seymour girls’ high school team.
“He just had the natural talent for the sport,” Cydney said. “Even when he was little, he could walk up there and hit the ball.”
“He told us he didn’t know how he was going to do it, but he was going to work to get that green jacket,” added Kevin, referring to the winner’s prize at the professional Masters Tournament. “He knew that’s quite an accomplishment, but it gave him the desire.”
Dave Sebestik is the Bulldogs boys’ golf coach, and he met Sam at an M-S golf camp when Sam was probably 10 years old.
“He was an outstanding young man and an outstanding golfer,” Sebestik said. “He had our lowest stroke average (in the 2019 season) and as a sophomore was voted team MVP.
“Far more important than that, he was always in a good mood. He was always laughing, always goofy and always positive. ... As a 32-year-old, I learned a lot from a 16-year-old.”
Sebestik said the golf program will honor Sam’s memory in two ways.
The first is a memorial bench with a plaque on it that will reside at a to-be-determined hole of Lake of the Woods Golf Course in Mahomet. The second will be the renaming of that M-S golf honor Sam received earlier this school year. To the “Sam Mitchaner MVP Award.”
“For somebody with his condition, you would’ve never known (he had it). Truly,” Sebestik said. “I had some kids on our team who never knew it. ... He didn’t want to be a kid who had a heart condition that was different.”
A fan of theater
Beyond sports, Sam also plunged himself into drama. He performed in seven plays put on by the Champaign Park District, accepting a lead role in an adaptation of “Fame.”
“He had a couple of solos he sang,” Kevin said. “He really enjoyed the stretch of theater.”
He also was in high school choir. A video posted on the memorial Facebook page shows Sam as one of seven students singing “Wayfaring Stranger.”
M-S principal Chad Benedict, whom Kevin cited as a longtime Mitchaner family friend, described Sam’s effect on the Mahomet community as “pretty big.”
“His impact was big because he treated people the right way,” Benedict said. “He was funny. He was nice to people. He was a little ornery, but not ornery enough to get caught.”
Benedict reiterated Kevin’s feeling that even though Sam was the individual with a heart condition, he also was the person in any group who was ready to take on the world.
“You kind of had to remind him to slow down,” Benedict said. “He wanted to be a young man like everybody else. ... He just had an infectious attitude. The way he lived his life was infectious.”
Love of boating
Sam’s interests also extended to boating, spurred by the Mitchaners owning a boat and vacationing in Florida.
“He’s been driving our boat since he was 5 years old,” Kevin said. “One of his things was he wished he could find some way to captain a yacht someday.”
That wasn’t just a pipe dream to Sam. His dad said Sam “had an app on his phone (through which) he would track yachts” — finding out where they were traveling and why as well as who owned them.
Those around Sam suggest he often appeared unstoppable, even in the face of adversity. So when his health didn’t improve after contracting endocarditis — a bacterial infection of the heart — it left the family “dumbfounded, heartbroken and confused,” according to Kevin.
Yet even while Sam struggled, he was looking out for those around him.
“He spent Christmas (2019) in the hospital. He still was worried about all the other kids,” Coyle said. “He’d walk around in the halls and wave to everybody. He was so worried about everybody else. That’s just how he was.”
Whenever M-S students can return to school — currently held out by the COVID-19 pandemic — they’ll miss a classmate whom Benedict said didn’t have one singular friend group. Because he wanted to befriend everyone.
And Sam’s family members will miss a young man who always kept them on their toes.
“During the church service (someone) had basically said, ‘How many 16-year-old boys do you know who want to hang out with their families?’” Coyle said. “He held us all to being better people.”