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It IS brain surgery, but Frankfort girl is driven to court success

Lincoln-Way East's Claire McMah(41) dribbles around Lincoln-Way West defender. | Allen Cunningham~For Sun-Times Media

Lincoln-Way East's Claire McMahon (41) dribbles around a Lincoln-Way West defender. | Allen Cunningham~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 4, 2013 3:00PM



When she was in fifth grade, Claire McMahon set a pretty lofty goal for herself.

The Frankfort girl wanted to become good enough in basketball to make the Lincoln-Way East High School varsity team as a freshman.

Claire reached that goal this season, not only earning a spot on the roster but establishing herself as a starting guard.

Along the way, she had to handle many obstacles, only one of which slowed her down. In June 2010, Claire underwent brain surgery to alleviate the symptoms of a neurological disorder called a Type I Chiari malformation.

Only a few weeks later, nearly 30 stitches still in the back of her head, she was back in the driveway, shooting hoops with her older sisters Caitlin and Meaghan.

“I remember driving home from work and seeing her out there, and thinking, ‘Oh, my goodness. I need to take off of work and watch my child,’ ” her mother, Jennifer, said with a smile a few hours before Claire took the court Saturday for the championship game of the Lincoln-Way Medieval Classic basketball tournament.

Claire is being compared very favorably at the same age to another 6-foot-1 Lincoln-Way East shooting guard, Jenna Rubino, who in 2003 was the Daily Southtown Player of the Year and went on to have a stellar career at DePaul University.

On the season, Claire is averaging just over six points per game. Her season-high was 18 points in a game against T.F. South in which she made all six of her shots from 3-point range.

“She’s a big guard who can shoot and handle the basketball,” Griffins coach Jim Martin said. “She can see over the top, and with those other skills it will be a good asset for her down the road in college.”

‘I thought it was normal’

Claire’s diagnosis, which took place near the end of seventh grade, painted a clear picture of what had been a very cloudy way of life. She had friends, played sports, did myriad activities like every other child on her block, but headaches, nausea and vomiting were frequent problems that would be treated, recede, but then return.

“That’s how I grew up, so I thought it was normal, I guess,” Claire said.

It was other, more disturbing symptoms that included blurred vision and numbness in her arms that resulted in Claire having a scan that showed the Type 1 Chiari malformation, a birth abnormality in which part of the brain extends below the skull and disrupts the flow of spinal fluid.

According to the Chiari Institute, anywhere from 200,000 to 2 million Americans may have the condition, with women three times more likely to be affected than men. Symptoms vary from severe to none. Treatment also varies, from none to medication to surgery.

“Thankfully, you don’t die from it, but you suffer from it,” Jennifer McMahon said.

The McMahons decided on surgery, which involves removing a portion of the bottom of the skull to relieve pressure on the brain and allow the spinal fluid to flow more easily.

Claire continued to play basketball with her club team until days before surgery. In her final game before going to Loyola University Hospital, she scored 26 points.

“My doctor (Dr. Doug Anderson) said that he had done the surgery many times and only one (patient) had to come back for surgery again. He was very confident,” Claire said. “But I just remember going out there and playing and thinking, ‘This could be my last game.’ ”

The surgery went well, and Claire was released from the hospital five days later.

Determination pays off

Ahead of schedule from the start in what at first was suggested would be a year away from basketball, she returned to the court in December.

While the surgery didn’t cure the condition, it did result in a lessening of the symptoms.

Claire’s restrictions were minimal during her recovery.

“I give (Anderson) a lot of credit,” Jennifer McMahon said. “For a young girl to have this diagnosis all of a sudden in her life, he encouraged her to reach for her dreams. He told her she could do anything she wanted to do. Even in times when I was like, ‘Wait a minute. She can go back and start playing basketball?’ he would always say, ‘Try it, see how she feels and we’ll base everything on that.’ He was very encouraging.

“A lot of people might have this, and they don’t go out and pursue what they want to do. You can try to work through it, be positive and strong. Don’t let it restrict your life.”

As an eighth-grader, Claire was a regular at Griffins games, watching her older sisters play.

“As soon as the games were over she’d get out there and start shooting,” Martin said. “And when she came in as a freshman, she ran every drill, as hard as she possibly could, and never complained once.

“I have never heard one time, ‘Coach, my head hurts. I have to sit out.’ She just plays through it. I try to give her a break, be more conscientious about it. But if I didn’t pull her, she wouldn’t come out. She’s tough. We’re glad she’s here.”



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