CUMBERLAND COUNTY, Pa. - For any high school coach, all you can ask from your athletes is to play with heart. East Pennsboro, Pennsylvania, senior Joe Mansaray embodies that sentiment in a way you can't even imagine.
Two years ago, Mansaray was a rising star in high school soccer. But the summer before his junior year, he started having trouble breathing and he didn’t know why.
The Pennsylvania teen thought it was just a cold. It turned out to be something much more serious. It’s called cardiomyopathy, and it results in an enlarged heart that doesn’t pump as efficiently as a regular heart.
It's also hereditary. At the time Joe was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, his mom was already waiting for a heart transplant. The mother and a son both battled the same disease at the same time.
Joe had an LVAD (a pump in his heart) to keep him alive until they found a heart for him.
His father Peter described an emotional scene at the hospital. "Joe was standing on the bedside of his mother who had just gone through her own surgery and was fighting for her life," he said.
It was hard for Joe to watch. “Things that I saw happen to her bothered me,” he explained. “I would think, is that how I’ll end up? I got very scared, not just for me, but for both of us.”
Joe had every reason to be scared. In September of last year, his mom did get a heart transplant, but there were complications after the surgery. Diseases were building up inside her body and her white blood cells were going up rapidly. Her hands, her fingertips, her toes, they were all purple.
Peter and his family gathered at the hospital. “When my daughter said 'let's pray for mom,' we formed a circle around her bed, joined hands with Joe standing there and then we prayed,” Peter remembered. “After the prayer, my wife passed away.”
Only two months after losing his mom, Joe found out that he too would need a transplant. At that point, after almost dying in the operating room, Joe looked at his dad and asked, “What did I do to deserve this?”
After surgery, Joe's stamina was horrible and he would get tired just changing his clothes. The rehab sessions that followed were often frustrating for Joe. But there was one thing that motivated him more than anything else: soccer.
Just six months later, Joe shocked everybody by returning to the field. His head coach was more worried about the new heart than Joe.
“I did worry,” admitted East Pennsboro head coach Randy Rich. “I worried when he took his first hit, how he’d respond. But he got up and actually let the guy know he didn’t like it.” Rich called Joe’s return “miraculous” and said he was once again the fastest guy on the team.
Peter is equally amazed at his son. “The strength that people think I have, I got most of that from Joseph," confessed Peter. Joe isn’t sure what’s next for him, although he does plan to go to college next year, maybe joining his older brother at Temple. But whatever path he takes, considering what he’s already been through, Joe will likely do just fine.