A year after brain tumor, a return to golf

Rutgers Camden golfer and Paul VI graduate Sean Sanchirico at Cooper River Driving Range on October 1, 2015. In 2014 Sean underwent surgery for a brain tumor. Against all odds, he's back on the course a year later for the Scarlet Raptors.

Sean Sanchirico has simple aspirations at this stage of his life: take classes at Rutgers Camden, spend time with family and friends, improve his game as a member of the Scarlet Raptors golf team.

"Just be a normal college student," Sanchirico said, setting the bar at a level that always seemed unattainable in recent years.

In one way, the 20-year-old from Haddon Township has made good on his goal. His days are pretty pedestrian for a popular pre-business major who can be found many afternoons at the Camden County Golf Academy driving range on Cooper River in Pennsauken.

In a larger sense, Sanchirico has ruined his hopes to be anonymously average. He has overcome too much and inspired too many.

"Honestly, it's one of the greatest things I've ever seen," Rutgers Camden freshman golfer Colton Cardea said of Sanchirico's surprising return to the team.

On Tuesday, Sanchirico will mark a one-year anniversary. It was Oct. 6, 2014 when he underwent surgery for a brain tumor - an event that marked both the end of the mystery that had twisted his world for more than two years and also set the stage for his remarkable recovery.

When doctors and therapists told Sanchirico there was little chance he would be back on the golf course "anytime soon," he silently made a vow. He would prove them wrong.

"That motivated me," Sanchirico said. "I remember my doctor kind of chuckling and saying there was 'no way.'

"I remember the physical and occupational therapists at Magee [Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia] seeing my struggles and kind of letting me know I wouldn't be golfing anytime soon.

"It made me remember my ultimate goal. I just wanted to get back out on the course. I just wanted to be normal again."

Sanchirico played golf and soccer at Paul VI High School. He started to feel ill in his stomach just a few weeks before the start of his senior year.

"I wanted to make it through soccer season, and I made it through senior night, but I had to sit out the last three or four games," Sanchirico said.

Sanchirico said he received a diagnosis of gastroparesis, a condition in which the stomach does not empty properly.

He was in and out of the hospital more times than he cares to remember and lost nearly 40 pounds.

"It got progressively worse," Sanchirico said.

This went on for two years. He played golf as a senior at Paul VI and as a freshman at Rutgers Camden and staggered into the woods to vomit on nearly every course.

"That's not an exaggeration," Sanchirico said.

Paul VI golf coach Tim Casale said Sanchirico rarely complained.

"Sean is just the all-American kid," Casale said. "He was such a leader in so many ways at Paul VI.

"That [senior] year, he just gutted it out. He would be puking on the course and he never said a word."

Said Rutgers Camden coach Bob Cardea, Colton's father: "What he went through, it was just brutal. He always was in the woods, throwing up."

In a way, golf was the key to discovering the elusive source of his distress. In the late summer of 2014, as a sophomore on the Rutgers Camden team, Sanchirico started experiencing double vision on the course.

"It would really only happen when I played golf," Sanchirico said. "I'm left-handed, and I would look out to the right to the flag and I would see two flags, two holes."

Sanchirico went to see Richard Kressloff, an ophthalmologist.

"He was examining me and he asked me if my parents were around," Sanchirico said. "I knew something was up."

By examining Sanchirico's optic nerve, Kressloff discovered swelling on Sanchirico's brain. He was rushed to the University of Pennsylvania hospital, where an MRI revealed a brain tumor.

It was the tumor that had been causing his stomach problems all along.

"His neurosurgeon, Dr. [Donald] O'Rourke, said it was 'impossible' that Sean had been golfing with a tumor that size," said Bridget Sanchirico, Sean's mother.

Sanchirico underwent 81/2 hours of surgery to remove the tumor. He spent weeks in intensive care and acute rehabilitation, had 30 days of proton radiation therapy, and had to learn how to walk again.

"I had to retrain everything," Sanchirico said. "Everything worked but my brain had learned to do everything with the tumor in there."

He started golfing before he even returned home.

"He was still in the hospital and he sent me this picture of him on a little indoor putting green," Casale said. "He wrote, 'I'm starting to get the itch, Coach.' "

Sanchirico was away from home for 42 days. A little more than a week after he returned to the family's house, he went to the driving range.

"My dad [Gary] had to hold my hips so I wouldn't fall," Sanchirico said. "I took a little quarter swing. Then the next time I took a half swing. Then I did it without him holding me, and I just gradually got better."

In the spring of this year, Sanchirico played his first round of golf. He also was a guest speaker at Paul VI's sports banquet.

"We wanted him to talk with athletes and parents about what sports meant to him, how it saved his life," Paul VI athletic director Tony Mitchell said.

Sanchirico returned to the Rutgers Camden team for the fall semester. He isn't one of the Scarlet Raptors' top five players, but he is a key member of the squad.

"I've been doing this for 22 years," Bob Cardea said. "It's very rare when you have a player that everybody else on the team likes. That's Sean."

Sanchirico said "there wasn't a day" during his recovery when he didn't get a text or a visit or a phone call from a friend. He credits his friends and family for their role in his recovery, and believes a visit to the religious shrine in Lourdes, France, last spring helped to heal him as well.

"When I came back I had tremendous eye improvements and the doctors were amazed," Sanchirico said.

Sanchirico wears special glasses during most of his day. He plays golf with a patch on his right eye to reduce his double vision.

He said his golf game needs a lot of work. But the good news for him is that he has the opportunity to make that improvement while fulfilling his dream of living as a "normal" college student.

"Just being able to go out on the course and not have to step off to the side and get sick, it's the greatest feeling in the world," Sanchirico said. "Just walking out with the team, spending time with my teammates, it means the world to me."