In 2008, Nick Panarello was the ace of the pitching staff for the Bishop Hendricken freshman baseball team. In 2011, he capped off his career with an impressive senior season.
Those are storybook endpoints for a high-school athlete – a promising start and a happy ending.
Panarello’s ending was happier than most.
Because in between the typical start and the typical finish, Panarello’s story veered far off course, so far that he wondered if he’d ever have a baseball story at all.
It started when he was a sophomore. He had a bout with the flu, and when he came back to school, his friends said his skin looked yellow. By fourth period, he was noticing it too.
That was November.
In the next six months, his world would change.
He went to the hospital that day. Something was wrong with his liver. At first, it didn’t seem too bad. Panarello had more energy then doctors would have expected.
Then the blood tests came back.
“When they saw the results, they admitted me immediately,” Panarello said.
He was diagnosed with acute liver failure.
Suddenly, schoolwork and baseball and weekend plans seemed very far away.
After three days at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, Panarello was transferred to Yale New Haven Hospital. The reason was ominous – Hasbro doesn’t do liver transplants. Doctors feared he might need one.
The weekend before Thanksgiving, it started looking like a very real possibility.
“The doctors said we needed to be ready to take those steps and put my name on the list,” Panarello said. “I remember looking at my dad and saying, ‘I am not getting a liver transplant.’”
Thankfully, he didn’t have to. His test results started looking better, and he steadily improved on his own. He wouldn’t need the transplant. He got to go home for Thanksgiving.
But that wasn’t the end.
In December, follow-up blood tests revealed that his blood platelet count was dropping. Doctors diagnosed him with aplastic anemia, which occurs in a small percentage of liver failure patients and amounts to bone marrow failure.
There was talk of another transplant. Doctors even went so far as to test Nick’s brother, Will, to see if he was a bone marrow match.
Ultimately, he went on a drug cocktail that carries a 70 percent success rate. He spent three days in the hospital getting the most intense doses, took steroids for weeks and was on ciclosporin, an immune system suppressant, for six months.
He responded well to the treatment and again, he improved, but there was another complication. He developed an infection in his leg and had to spend two more weeks in the hospital.
It wasn’t the scariest part, but for Panarello, it was the worst. The pain was unbearable.
“It was the worst pain of my life,” he said.
And it was baseball season. The infection happened around the time for tryouts. A few months before, he’d been envisioning a great season with the junior varsity team, maybe a couple of looks from the varsity squad.
But Panarello stayed positive, recovered from the infection and started to get his life back.
“A lot of people asked me how I managed,” Panarello said. “It was tough obviously, but a number of the doctors said to me that I had great energy and that I was always upbeat. I think that’s a huge part of getting past any obstacle.”
That’s a lesson Panarello has taken to heart.
From the moment he got off crutches following the infection, he begged his doctors to let him play baseball. In May, he was cleared and he was back on the mound in one of the last junior varsity games of the season.
He learned then that baseball was going to be an obstacle all its own.
“I think I threw 14 pitches, and I was absolutely exhausted,” Panarello said. “I came out of the game and it was like I had run a marathon. I realized at that point that I had a long way to go.”
In the two years since, Panarello has stayed healthy, and he started feeling stronger on the baseball field in his junior year. He didn’t pitch much, though. He felt like a sophomore trying to find his way, rather than a junior on the way up.
After last summer, he set his sights on his senior season. He didn’t have delusions of grandeur, but he hoped he could contribute.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect,” he said. “But I worked really hard in the off-season and I just said, ‘Whatever happens, happens.’ If me pitching a lot was what was best for the team, great. If they needed me to be a senior leader, that was fine too.”
As his senior season unfolded, Panarello’s baseball story finally got back on track.
He pitched both as a starter and as a reliever for the Hawks and became a valuable member of the staff. He finished with an ERA under two and went out with a bang. In a must-win playoff game against South Kingstown, Panarello went 6.1 innings and allowed just a run on four hits in leading the Hawks to a victory.
Panarello’s success was due in part to a changing perspective.
“I think being sick taught me that there are other things besides baseball,” he said. “At the same time, it taught me that talent alone is not going to get you anywhere. You really have to work for it.”
These days, Panarello is the veteran leader of a very young Senerchia Post 74 American Legion team. While he’s the team’s most experienced pitcher, his leadership means just as much.
“Not only has he been awesome on the mound, he’s been a great team guy,” said coach C.J. Martin. “He’s on the bench up at the fence rooting for everybody. You wish you could have 18 guys like him on your team. He’s been huge for us, just his presence.”
When summer’s over, Panarello will enroll at Northeastern University, where he plans to major in behavioral neuroscience on a pre-med track. His doctors have inspired him to get into medicine.
He’s also thinking of walking on to the baseball team. Northeastern plays at the D-I level, so it’ll be a challenge, but Panarello sees no reason not to try.
“It’s worth a shot,” he said.
Whatever happens, Panarello will always be able to look back on his baseball career and smile.
It wasn’t everything he once hoped for.
But maybe it was a storybook anyway.
“In the end, to come out and be successful after everything means a lot to me,” Panarello said. “It’s really something special and it’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”