Near-death experiences make Penn's Jamal Lewis happy to be alive
The nap lasted six days.
“All I remember is not being able to breathe,” Penn guard Jamal Lewis recalled. “It was weird. My mindset during that whole thing was weird. It’s kind of like I was asleep, but not really. I was so drugged up, just (barely) holding consciousness, that I remember taking what could have been my last breath before they put me in a coma.
“And, really, I think about that now and I’m like, ‘What would’ve happened if they weren’t able to get me (on) the respirator?’ That would’ve been my last breath. And at that point, I kind of released control over what happened. It’s really an existential way to think about it, but yeah.”
The Quakers host Dartmouth Friday on ASN, and Lewis won’t tell you he’s just happy to be there. At this point, he’s happy to be anywhere.
Life throws curveballs now and again. In March 2014, it started tossing Lewis splitters, the Bruce Sutter kind that dive in the dirt. What started out as a staph infection and pneumonia flipped into something worse.
Much, much, much, much, much worse.
“Because I couldn’t breathe,” the senior explained. “I was having a really hard time breathing and that was because I was getting too much fluid (in the lungs) from both antibiotics and pain killers. There was all that fluid into my lungs, so my lungs couldn’t really expand. There wasn’t a lot of space for oxygen.”
Doctors wanted to give his lungs a time to rest, to rejuvenate. So they shut him down, inducing a coma.
“I was stunned, just like everybody else,” said Penn coach Steve Donahue, who’d recruited Lewis while he was in charge at Boston College (2010-14) and kept tabs on the situation. “And I was told that he wasn’t going to make it and (they were) giving him last rites and things of that nature. They’re like, ‘He’s been in a coma and they can’t figure this out.’ And thank God they did.”
What had started as a virus — at least that’s what Student Health thought it was, at first — became a slippery slope. Lewis had become weak and listless for three or four days straight, completely drained. More irksome, the lump in his left armpit wouldn’t go away.
“And then over the next couple of days it got worse,” Lewis recalled. “And then it got to the point where I couldn’t take it. I knew something was up. And I went back to Student Health and they sent me to the ER.”
It gets … hazy after that. Parents were called. Nurses swarmed. Lewis drifted in and out of consciousness, his lungs straining. There was that last breath and a blissful sleep.
Then the fade-in. Noises, murmuring softly at first.
“But when I woke up, I just remember bright lights, and my mom’s voice and the voices of the nurses and the doctors leaning over me,” Lewis said. “It’s kind of like a rebirth. However you imagine that in the movies, that’s kind of how it was.”
Lewis figured he’d taken a power nap, 40 winks. It was more like 400.
“But it turned out I was out for six days,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Man, I need to get out of here, I need to work out.’ They said, ‘You’re not going anywhere. You just need to relax.’”
Little by little, they told him how far he’d come. And how far he’d have yet to go.
“It’s quite the experience,” Lewis said. “That feeling of kind of accepting your last breath is not something I ever thought I would experience. Though I didn’t slip into (a death spiral) or die and come back, yeah, it’s as close as you can possibly get. It felt that way. It still kind of feels that way now.”
The freaky part would get freakier still: They weren’t able to pinpoint, initially, where the infection had come from. He hadn’t been inside the Quakers’ locker room that much in the week preceding his initial collapse. The prevailing theory is that something got into a sweat gland and was blocked by a hair follicle, and the fluid under his arm, naturally, kept building up, allowing the bacteria to grow.
And, in this case, return. After a month at home, Jamal’s family noticed another lump forming under his arm. At Georgetown University Hospital, the growth — this one diagnosed as MRSA — was removed.
“The doctors even said (that), that the way I contracted it was like being struck by lightning twice in one lifetime,” Lewis said. “I don’t think there’s much I could do differently to prevent that. If you’re going to get struck by lightning twice, it’s going to happen.”
Alas, in the fall, lightning struck again. Following a preseason workout, Lewis felt his body cramping to the point where he couldn’t move.
“Hindsight is 20/20 … I was feeling so good that I tried to do way too much,” the Penn guard recalled. “I went to get a shower and my whole body just locked up.”
Twelve bags of IV fluid later, he was on his feet. He was getting blood tests every month, always checking, physicians unsure whether basketball was in the cards or not.
“It was like a weird cycle,” he said. “I didn’t fully recover to get on a consistent workout plan until the next March or April.”
The D.C. native had started 19 games as a freshman in 2012-13 and appeared in 26 games as a sophomore. But the infections and the aftermath wiped out the 2014-15 season and put the next one in doubt. During the time away, Lewis had put on unwanted pounds and the Quakers had picked up a new coach in Donahue.
“He said, ‘Let’s play it by ear,’” Lewis recalled. “He didn’t promise anything. Which I wouldn’t expect him to … but he was very supportive of me making the right decision for me. And that helped a lot.”
So did Mom and Dad. With every step.
“They wanted me to at least try,” Lewis said. “No one knew how my body would react and how it would sustain a long, grueling season. But my parents have always taught me to never give up and give it your all. I never would’ve let myself live it down if I had never tried, and a lot of that was because of my parents.”
Bit by bit, the lungs came back — not back to where they were two years earlier, but back enough. Lewis has appeared in 16 contests, averaging 3.0 points and an assist, logging 12 or more minutes on eight different occasions.
“I had been through a lot over the year,” Lewis said. “But at the same time, I knew I had a deadline, so I tried to get in shape for the conditioning test. So it was a trade-off, a hard middle to reach. So, yeah, the summer was a litmus test.”
For the most part, one he’d passed. Even with the new coaches.
“I saw him last year and I didn’t think he’d play,” Donahue said. “And he just kept getting better and better. And I think that’s just how he took it, one day at a time.
“We always say, ‘Make the most of today,’ and you talk to him and you watch him and he’s doing it. And you can tell. That’s a great role model for all of us, including me. He’s very fortunate. There’s so much crazy stuff in life that you take for granted. And he makes sure he doesn’t.”
To live and learn, you’ve got to live first.
“Most 20-year-olds, the only experience with death they’d probably had was the death of a family member, like a grandparent or an aunt,” Lewis said. “You never think it’s going to happen to you.
“The whole experience made me appreciate all those (things) more. It’s kind of brought me to the realization that you never really know what might happen. One day, you could be on top of the world and the next day, you could be in a hospital bed, fighting for your life. Like I said before, if you’re going to be struck by lightning, it’s going to happen anyway. Why not live your life to the fullest just in case that happens, and you can say you’ve lived?”
The weight on his frame has been a bear to lose. The weight on his soul never felt lighter.
Above: Penn's Jamal Lewis fought through near-death experience and his back on the road to recovery for the Quakers. (Courtesy Penn Athletics)