CARY — For the past three years, Michael Daniel Mendy's mother watched her son lose his cognitive abilities. This week, the 16-year-old from Cary lost his life after an unexplained degradation of his body.
Kathleen Mendy thinks her son's medical conditions may have stemmed from two concussions received while playing sports. Doctors also have suggested that a genetic disorder was a contributing cause.
No one, Mendy said, has a sure answer.
The family's nightmare began soon after Michael took an elbow to the temple in a basketball game when he was 13. It was his second concussion in two months - he had suffered one earlier while playing football. In the following years, he would drop 40 percent of his body weight as doctors struggled to understand an onslaught of medical problems. His mother said Michael "cried a lot, ... his movements weren't right and he had double vision."
"It was just a mess," Mendy said Friday. "He started having trouble in school, he wasn't himself - I don't know what it was."
Mendy, a Cary resident of 17 years, said her son was a sports fanatic and an enthusiastic player on dozens of sports teams before he got sick.
His health seemed to improve with a surgery in May 2009 to address his double vision. But his condition worsened just a month later, when he contracted the H1N1 flu, his mother said.
"When he woke up that day, he couldn't walk or talk," Mendy said.
A pre-existing neurological condition can worsen H1N1's effect, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website confirms. After the flu hit, Michael spent about two months in local hospitals.
"He wasn't getting better, but they ran all the tests that they could think to run," said Mendy, who praised her son's doctors. "I don't think they really knew what to do at that point - it was a matter of bringing him home and seeing if he could get better."
The return home seemed to work. Michael was able to move with a walker, he gained weight and his cognition appeared to improve. But a broken ankle in 2010 returned him to a hospital bed and seemed to mark the beginning of a debilitating new phase of his still-unexplained illness.
That year he lost almost all of his ability to speak. Physical tasks like chewing became a challenge. From a healthy high of 200 pounds, he shrank to just 122 pounds.
Doctors still couldn't explain his lack of coordination and frailty, his mother said.
A bout with pneumonia again hospitalized Michael Mendy in fall 2011. And only two months after his release from that stay, an ambulance rushed him to UNC Health Care in Chapel Hill last month, his mother said. A flu infection had compromised his breathing, and doctors put him on a ventilator days later.
"I just thought ... a couple weeks, he'd get rid of his cold and we'd be out of there," Mendy said. "They could never get off the ventilator - they tried to take him off a couple times, and he couldn't breathe."
A painful decision
She soon faced a terrible choice, she said. She could take Michael home with a tracheotomy and a ventilator, she said, but even then could expect only a few more months with her son.
"I couldn't put him through all that," she said. With her permission, doctors "took him off the ventilator, and they pumped morphine into him to help him."
The reasons for Michael's degeneration and death remain unclear.
"The doctors were never sure if this was a genetic disorder or if it was the concussions," Mendy said.
Because of medical privacy laws, UNC Health Care could not immediately comment on Michael's death and medical conditions.
The body is scheduled for an autopsy soon, and his mother hopes for answers that could help other children.
She reiterated that she blames neither his doctors nor his sports teams for his struggle.
Michael's funeral will be Tuesday.