by John Ring

It was just a few months ago that Patrick Hanlon-- a 1998 graduate of GHS, who played varsity baseball, football and basketball-- was stricken with a strange ailment that hospitalized him.

Doctors couldn't diagnose it, Patrick lost weight and he got sicker every day.

''I prayed for Patrick every night,'' said Donna Cooley. ''Every single night I prayed to God.''

Patrick recovered; it was a viral infection.

But Donna Cooley, mother of Jason Wessels, knew what Patrick's family was going through.

Jason, a senior guard for the Silver Streaks in 1997, was inflicted with bacterial meningitis two years ago. He was close to death. He lost both legs below the knee and most of his fingers. He went through hell.

Now, almost exactly two years later, Jason still battles every day.

Every single day.

''The pain was so bad one night I had to go to the emergency room,'' said Wessels from his home Monday night. ''Man, it was real, real bad.''

The pain Jason's referring to is from a medical device designed to lengthen the bone in his right leg. Called the Illizorof, this mechanical brace extends the bone is his leg over a period of time. In Jason's case, it's been almost three inches in three months. Jason's illizorof

The reason for the bone growth is so a more flexible prosthetic leg can be attached to the bone.

''If you've seen those Adidas commercials with the woman running with prosthetic limbs, that's it,'' said Jason. ''She moves pretty fast, too. The first prosthetic limbs I had didn't fit well at all. They were very stiff, very uncomfortable.''

Twice a month, Jason has been going to The Shriners Hospital in Chicago for treatment and evaluation of the device.

''It's been real hard on him,'' said Mrs. Cooley. ''Wearing it has led to bursitis in the hip and it's led to sciatica nerve pain. When we took him to the emergency room, they really didn't know what to do for him. He's been on a lot of different pain pills.''

Once the bone has been extended enough, the prosthetic device is surgically attached to the bone using 16 rods.

''It's going to be hard at first,'' admitted Jason. ''Guess I'll have to get my walker out again.''

''The device was originally used for people with one leg longer than another,'' said Cooley. ''Results have been great. A lot of patients have been able to eventually run, to play basketball.''

Because of this treatment, Jason had to temporarily shelve any plans for a college education. But even before that, he was having trouble making it to class.

''My body just wasn't ready for it,'' said Jason. ''I'd go to classes at Sandburg and I was exhausted after walking from my car to the classroom. I wanted to go but I just wasn't physically ready.''

''I hope to take some internet courses at CSC after this is over. I need to get back on track, school-wise. Eventually, I'd like to go to Knox. I'd love to go there. Kevin Heimann has introduced me to a lot of new friends out there.''

So for now, Jason's killing time. ''I really wanted to see Darius Miles play out there last week,'' said Jason about the East St. Louis senior standout who played against the Silver Streaks. ''It would have been nice to see Beau Shay get those 40 points, too.''

''I still see a lot of the guys I played with. Kevin is here a lot with me. When Patrick is in town I see him. Joey [Range] calls me when he gets back here and Mike Miller called me just last week.''

Jason's left hand is doing fine. He can use the computer, send email, play video games. But the right hand is another matter. Jason's now strongly considering a hand transplant after rejecting one last year at a hospital in Louisville.

''I just didn't want to be the first one to do it. There were a lot of risks involved. But the guy who had it done, the first guy, is doing great. He even threw out the first pitch at an Orioles game this year.''

For his medical care, the Shriners are paying for everything until Jason turns 22, which won't be for another three years. Transportation and lodging costs are taken care of by the special fund created in Jason's name after he was inflicted by the illness.

Other than the pain in his knee and hips, Jason's doing well. He's gained weight and is nearly up to 200 pounds, a far cry from where he was two years ago. It's inevitable that a conversation with Jason Wessels turns to sports. It always does.

''We should have beat them,'' the former Streak guard said about a summer game against Whitney Young 30 months ago. ''We had them down by 8 points in the third quarter. We lost the game but knew we could play with anybody.''

That was just months before that special '98 season when the Streaks played in the state championship game against those same guys from Young.

''It seems like yesterday,'' said Jason when asked about the time frame. ''I wrote a 14-year-old the other week who has a classic case of meningitis, just like mine. I just told him that things will get better, they really will. Things will get better no matter how bad it looks.''

''The poor kid was a hockey goalie,'' said Cooley. ''I was very proud of Jason for writing him.''

Asked if residents in the community have forgotten about Jason after a two-year period, Cooley said, ''No, they don't forget. When I'm out, someone always asks about Jason. They always do.''

Former Bradley basketball coach Joe Stowell, who Jason met while hospitalized in Peoria, still comes to visit him. ''Coach Stowell said he considers Jason like a grandson,'' said Cooley. ''He brings him gifts, sends him cards.''

It's been a long ordeal for Jason and his family and it still goes on and on and on.

But Donna Cooley, despite times of frustration, is still grateful.

''Every time I get sad, I realize that he's still with us. For that, I thank God each and every night.''

(Editors note: With the holiday season rapidly approaching, I'm sure Jason would love to hear from Silver Streak fans and alumni. You can email him at

Uploaded to The Zephyr website December 8, 1999

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