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Courage on the court: the Dylan Kalambay story

By Radhya Comar, May 11 2024— 

Heart and Sole – The Dylan Kalambay Story is a short documentary-style film directed by Michael Hamilton  and produced by  Game Seven Media, in conjunction with the Canadian Blood Services. The film follows Kalambay as he navigates recovery, COVID-19, college applications and his return to basketball following a lifesaving heart transplant a year earlier. The six foot ten forward was just 16 when he was diagnosed with a deadly heart condition. 

Kalambay suffered from dilated cardiomyopathy where the left ventricle of his heart struggled to pump blood and the entire organ swelled. The otherwise healthy teen, who once managed a rigorous athletic regimen, struggled to keep up with workouts and practices.

To help reduce the stress on the left ventricle of his heart, Kalambay underwent surgery to install a device called a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD). However, this did not improve his condition. He was then placed on a transplant list in the hopes of securing a new heart. 

In the film, Kalambay recalls this period of stress and uncertainty. During the question period following a screening on Mar. 24, he credits his family as his support system. He describes his parents, Richard and Joelle, as being extremely religious, the family making several visits to church and turning to prayer. During one such visit, Kalambay recalls how the pastor assured him that everything would be okay and that he had a vision of Dylan playing basketball in a red and yellow uniform. Kalambay assumed the pastor saw him in the orange jersey of the Ridley College Tigers, his high school team which he was itching to get back to. Still, doctors surrounding the young athlete warned his family of the long wait-times on the national transplant list. Due to Kalambay’s physique, securing an organ that could support his towering height also posed a challenge. 

After five months, he underwent a successful heart transplant on Nov. 17, 2020. This date marked the beginning of a lengthy recovery process. A year ago, the elite athlete was representing Canada in Brazil as a part of the  U-16  Team. He received an official offer to play for the University of Denver and was garnering heavy interest from Howard and Princeton University. Following the operation, the documentary shows how he struggled to walk a few paces without collapsing. Still, Kalambay dedicated himself to the recovery process. His doctors recall the zeal with which he got up every morning, ready to go through all of the exercises and assessments in order to improve his physical health. 

His efforts paid off as he returned to play for the Ridley College Tigers on Oct. 20, 2021, less than a year post-transplant. This event opens up Heart and Sole. However, it is not where Kalambay’s story ends. The film also documents his struggles with training and recovery during the COVID-19 pandemic and college applications. Kalambay had initially hoped to secure a Division 1 basketball scholarship in order to help his parents in funding his education. Yet, these chances seemed to dwindle in the face of his diagnosis. He asserted that he understood a university’s reasoning for “betting on someone who was already healthy” as he said in the documentary, but still expressed his disappointment at being denied the chance to prove himself. Nonetheless, Kalambay ended up at the University of Calgary to play for the Dinos. Originally enrolled in kinesiology, he hopes to transition into media and communication studies and does not dismiss a future career in sports commentating. 

Dinos head coach Dan Vanhooren described the Dinos’ recruiting process. 

“Identifying athletes that not only have the right basketball talent but the right personality and character to be part of the university.” said Head Coach Vanhooren on an interview with the Gauntlet.

The Vanhooren describes an athlete’s temperament as being an essential part of their journey with the Dinos.  

“He’s a great human being,” said Vanhooren. “If they don’t tick that box we don’t even bother.”

Vanhooren also discussed what the young athlete adds to the team.

“The perspective he can bring and what he can teach our other plays and how he can continually remind us all of what’s important.” 

Kalambay started his journey with the Dinos last year. He began the season normally, but faced a medical crisis when his body started to reject the transplanted heart. Thankfully, Kalambay was able to recover. Although, unfortunately, he has not played in any games since then. Speaking on his inability to participate, Kalambay describes how he manages these thoughts by reminding himself that his journey is uniquely his own and that it has also rewarded him with several opportunities. For example, Kalambay was able to meet one of his personal role models and fellow Cameroonian, NBA star Pascal Siakam. Through the production of Heart and Sole, he was also able to partner with Canadian Blood Services to urge others to register as organ donors. As such, the film also focuses on the story of Logan Boulet and his family. Boulet was a hockey player from Saskatchewan who passed away in the devestating Humboldt Broncos Bus Crash of 2018. His parents, Bernadine and Toby Boulet upheld his wish to donate his organs. This decision not only saved six lives but also kickstarted the Logan Boulet Effect, during which record numbers of Canadians registered as organ donors. In the film, Kalambay acknowledged that the Boulets represent “the other side of the coin” when it comes to organ donation. They represent the tragic set of circumstances that is often attached to transplants. 

The Boulets were also present at the Calgary screening of Heart and Sole, along with two of Kalambay’s doctors, director Michael Hamilton and Dinos’ Athletic Development Coach Rich Hesketh. Hesketh’s work with the Dinos has a large focus on strength and conditioning. He divulges that although he has worked with several athletes with cardiac conditions before, working with a transplant recipient is a first for him.

Vanhooren also acknowledged the risks associated with Kalambay’s training.

“Because of the gravity of what the consequence could be, it definitely grounds us in a different perspective on how we approach things,” said Vanhooren.

However, both coaches characterize Kalambay’s attitude as extremely helpful towards managing the process.

“He’s diligent and paying attention and he’s communicative. Those things make it easier to to manage what would be a difficult situation with athletes that are driven,” asserts Coach Vanhooren.

Managing Kalambay’s condition also requires immense direction from his medical team. Although, this can be a complicated process at times according to Hesketh. It requires Kalambay’s original medical team in Ontario to communicate with doctors in Alberta, univeristy specialists and then lastly, coaches. Hesketh recognizes the importance of the medical team.

“I’m not going to make a move until they tell me I can make a move,” said Hesketh. 

This communicative chain of command can be a lot for an athlete itching to get back on the court. Fortunately, Kalambay may be able to do so soon. His recovery has been on track and Vanhooren is optimistic.

“He may be able to play in the fall,” said Vanhooren.

Of course, there is a still a long road following the medical clearances. The simple technique exersizes that the athlete has been practicing for the past few months must be traded in for intensive training sessions that improve his strength, stamina and agility. Still, one thing neither Kalambay nor his coaches need to be concerned about is his integration within the team. The Ontario native’s bond with his team was clearly displayed on the Mar. 24 as many of them came to support him at his screening. A normal start to the season last year greatly helped begin Kalambay’s integration into the Dinos. Although, according to the coaches, his personality also helps with this.

Kalambay’s demeanour is one of the main reasons that Coach Vanhooren says “He wont be disruptive, he’s going to be an augmentation to what we have,” when referencing his return to the court.

Several screening attendees had concerns about this. They wondered if Kalambay’s medical past would prevent other players from treating him as a regular opponent. Hesketh quickly dismissed this notion.

“If someone steps on the court with you, you’d have to treat them like anyone else,” Hesketh said.

Both him and Kalambay agreed that other players had never been easy on the 6’10 center.

“One of my favourite things to say in high school after coming back to basketball and scoring on the other team was, ‘You’re getting fried by a make-a-wish-kid.’” 

While it may get easier for Kalambay to talk about as time goes on, his story remains as stirring as ever. Being able to adjust himself to his own changing abilities, circumstances and visions of the future speaks not only to his resilience as an athlete, but also his stoicism as a person. As he continues to do so, he remains a model of adaptability and perseverance. 

Kalambay continues to promote registration for organ donation and represents transparency in the transplant process. Thus, his story grows more and more inspiring by the day. Hopefully, his pastor’s visions are realized and Kalambay is able to don the red and yellow jerseys again in the fall. Nonetheless, Kalambay continues to make the U of C community proud both on and off the court.

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