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March 11, 2009: Heart problems continue for Casey

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By Steve Doyle

 Mike Casey says he is feeling OK – even managing some smiles and chuckles -- and fighting the good fight against his longtime heart problems.

Casey, Shelby County’s legendary former basketball star, is being treated at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where doctors are hoping sometime soon to replace his infection-ravaged heart,

“I’m high on the list for a heart transplant,” he said by phone on Friday. “But I’m not at the top of the list.”

Casey’s heart has been a problem since 1989, when an infection damaged its upper chamber of the heart. He has battled a rapid build up of fluid and other complications while doctors tried to persuade his insurance carrier that a transplant was the best thing to do.

They finally were successful this year, placing Casey on the transplant list, but the process has been slow. His unusual blood type and body size must be matched precisely by a donor heart, and that makes the situation more complex than most.

This week, doctors are looking at new solutions to improve his health and build the strength he needs to endure a transplant.

“We’re going to make a decision about whether they’ll go in an put in new valves on both sides of the heart or attach a device that lives outside the body,” Casey said. “Those are the two options. They say it would take six weeks to improve, but I’m thinking we’re looking at six months to get through this.”

Since November he has been struggling with a staph infection in his legs that forced him to be on medications that weren’t conducive to his heart treatment, and recently, he has gained fluid quickly and maintaining it, setting off the defibrillator that he wears and pushing doctors to suggest new options to attack specific symptoms, including the external device.

Though Casey has not been constantly hospitalized since a touch-and-go situation in November, he has spent time in intensive care, and his daughter Laura Casey Lake, his sister, Masha Miller, and other family members have monitored his situation constantly.

His spirits were buoyed last week with the official announcement that in April Casey will be inducted into the Kentucky Sports Hall of Fame, the state’s preeminent shrine.

Casey, who is the 13th leading career scorer at the University of Kentucky, joins former teammates, coaches, contemporaries and luminaries such as Muhammad Ali in the hall of fame. He already is a member of the UK Sports Hall of Fame and the Dawahares KHSAA Hall of Fame. At the  regional tournament Monday night in New Castle, he was named the inaugural member of the Eighth Region Hall of Fame.

“It’s a great honor to be thought of, but to be inducted among those coaches, players and administrators is humbling,” he said. “It’s a lifelong dream, and I’m just very happy even to be considered. It’s quite an honor.”

Casey’s battle with health problems has been an organic flow of information throughout Big Blue Nation. He has received many cards, calls and visits, and along the way, an old coach even called in a bet.

It seems that, during his playing days at Shelby County, Casey and then assistant coach Mitch Bailey used to play horse for milkshakes after practice. Coach Bill Harrell was a big believer in shakes, and this seemed a good commodity for competition.

Casey, a gangly Mr. Basketball, against the diminutive and balding Bailey seemed an athletic mismatch, but here’s how Casey tells the story:

 “He beat me out of sixty milk shakes,” Casey said. “He had this old two-handed set shot, and he never missed. He just kept pouring them in. And we were always doubling the bet. But we agreed that if we won the State [Sweet 16], we would forget the debt.

“Then I got this card a while back from Coach Bailey, and he said he was calling in the debt. So I called Dairy Queen and had them get him gift certificates for sixty milk shakes.”

Inflation cost Casey, too. What would have been about $15 to $20 worth of shakes in 1966 cost him more than $100 this time around.

Bailey chuckles about how it all worked out.

 “I think he only owed me 13 milk shakes, and I told him I’d let him off if we won State,” he said. “But over the years we had some fun with this, and the number sort of grew.

“And a couple of weeks ago, this lady from dairy queen brought me this certificate for a hundred dollars worth of small mike shakes.

“I wrote Mike a note night before last that I had overplayed my hand. I sent him back one milk shake and told him that the hall of fame might reconsider when it finds out he got beat by an old man shooting two-handed set shots.”

Bailey, like many of Casey’s fans, has followed him since those first days back at SCHS. “He was nice to me the first time I met him, and he has been nice to me ever since,” he said. “Nobody but Mike would have done what he did.

“I know he’s having a tough time, and I’d like to go see him. But I know I can’t right now.”