All Sam Dindoffer wanted was to be a kid and play basketball. But sometimes your body doesn’t cooperate.
For the past four years, Sam and his family have faced one challenge after another since he first experienced a brain seizure at the age of 11. Since then, he has undergone four brain surgeries, a full-range of drug treatment options, many nights filled with wonder and fear, and trips back and forth to doctors’ offices from Dalton to Atlanta.
But those basketball dreams have remained a part of his higher consciousness.
“I remember asking mom on the way home (from the doctor’s office) when I was 11 if this was something I could die from,” Dindoffer said. “She said, ‘Well, Sam, I will tell you the truth that it might happen.’ That was really the point I was most scared at, but God gave me a peace about it. I was thinking that I was going to be fine and it would work out in the end, and it has.”
Sam is a finalist for the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Comeback Athlete of the Year award. He is one of eight finalists for the award, which will be presented on May 21. Biographies and videos of the finalists are on the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta website (www.choa.org/vote) and members of the public can vote for their favorites. The winner will receive a $500 donation to his or her school’s athletic department. Although home schooled this past year after his latest rounds of surgery, Sam plans on being a freshman at Christian Heritage next school year.
“Some of the times are harder than others, but having a lot of support from school and family and friends is really helpful,” Sam said. “It has kept me positive and given me hope.”
After he experienced his first seizure, Sam was diagnosed with a brain tumor and had surgery to remove it. After finding out that the tumor wasn’t cancerous, Sam and his family thought he could go back to being the same kid he had been. However, the seizures returned and he was diagnosed with epilepsy and put on a variety of medications to help control the seizures during the next two years.
Throughout, the one thing that hasn’t changed has been his passion for basketball. It helps that both of his parents are graduates of the University of Michigan, which has one of the best college basketball programs in the nation, but he had inspiration closer to home.
When he was 4, his parents took Sam to his first Christian Heritage basketball game. At that time, Stephen McClellan and Tyler Watkins were standout players for the Lions as CHS would play for the Tennessee Association of Christian Schools championship four years in a row, winning twice. McClellan and Watkins would become Sam’s childhood idols.
“He would see Stephen and Tyler and he would recreate the games in the basement on his Fisher Price basketball goal,” Sam’s mother, DeLynn Dindoffer, said. “He has always been very good at basketball, so it was hard to see him struggling later on. There were two times early on in the whole process that I said that I wished that it was me. The second time, he said, ‘Don’t say that to me again’ because he said he wouldn’t want it to be me. And I told him that it is here and it is part of his story and God is going to use this in his life and we just have to deal with it. He has handled this so well.”
The medications Sam was taking were handling the seizures, but there were plenty of side effects.
“It is a lot of medication and it was really hard,” DeLynn Dindoffer said. “Seventh grade was so hard. He was almost falling asleep in school, and he was just dragging. When you think of what the medication is trying to do — it is trying to slow your brain down — you start to understand the effects.”
With the medications seemingly doing more harm than good, the family opted for surgery in March of 2012 to have a portion of Sam’s temporal lobe removed. Four weeks after surgery, he had another seizure. He went back on more medication.
“That was the hardest time probably,” DeLynn Dindoffer said. “We had already done so much and you just wonder what else you have to do.”
But the Dindoffer family — which includes father Tim, a local obstetrician — had words of comfort to remember, words DeLynn said have been a solid foundation upon which the family has stood.
The Scriptural passage is from Phillippians 4:6-7: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”
In the spring of last year, Sam became a patient of Dr. Joshua Chern, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Children’s Healthcare. Chern’s plan was to perform two surgeries — one to map the portion of the brain being affected and the other to remove the cause of the seizures.
The first surgery opened Sam’s skull and placed a grid on his brain with wires sticking out of his head, going to a computer monitor like something from a science fiction movie. His skull was on a hinge with a drain allowing fluid to leak off, but Chern got the information he needed and two days later performed Sam’s fourth brain surgery.
“I wasn’t a wreck because I know that it was God’s grace,” DeLynn Dindoffer said. “The anticipation of it was a lot worse than the reality of it. I just kept thinking (the Scripture). I am not supposed to be anxious, and I know God is taking care of Sam. If we hadn’t done surgery and the seizures had continued, there would have eventually been mental deficits.”
Since the second surgery by Chern, Sam hasn’t had any other seizures. Now, he is ready to get back to school with his friends and not have to worry about whether the seizures will affect his ability to get a driver’s license. He is also anxious to play basketball for one of his childhood heroes. Watkins was recently named the school’s head boys basketball coach.
“I wanted to be able to go through school and focus on school and basketball and not having to worry about seizures,” Sam said. “I started basketball when coach Watkins was playing basketball, and those players were the ones who made me want to play. It was hard watching my friends playing this year and not getting to play. I am looking forward to getting back on the court.”
To see Sam's video: http://youtu.be/9Nd_csYD5k0