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Baranek: Providence’s Hartley a man of steel

KevHartley Providence volleyball. | Tony Baranek~Sun-Times Media

Kevin Hartley, Providence volleyball. | Tony Baranek~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: July 4, 2013 6:34AM



If Providence senior Kevin Hartley is puffing his chest out more than usual these days ... well, he deserves to.

The 6-foot-3 volleyball player has just finished a successful season in which he switched from setter to middle hitter, compiling 63 kills and 33 blocks as a part-time starter.

As far as courage and determination were concerned, he was full-time all the way.

Hartley started the school year in a hospital bed, having had surgery on Aug. 27 to repair a condition called pectus excavatum.

No, you don’t have to look it up.

Pectus excavatum is basically a sunken chest. It’s an abnormality of the rib cage in which the sternum grows inward, resulting in a funnel appearance of the chest and a compromise to the area where the heart is located.

Hartley didn’t know any of that stuff when he was a kid with a sunken chest. He just thought he had, well, a sunken chest.

In his own words, he was “super active,” sports-wise, and other than some odd looks and comments occasionally like “Dude, what’s up with your chest?” he carried on without issue playing three years in the Providence volleyball program.

That all changed during the summer of 2012.

In addition to having a chest he wasn’t particularly fond of looking at, Hartley began experiencing some pretty annoying chest pains.

After he told his parents about it, they immediately took him to their doctor. It was at a specialist recommended by his doctor that Hartley first heard the term pectus excavatum.

The specialist told Hartley it would be in his best interest to have surgery.

The surgery, called the “Nuss Procedure,” involves inserting an inch-tall, chest-wide steel bar behind the sternum and attaching it to the ends of the rib cage. The bar effectively pushes out and holds the rib cage in its proper position.

And boy, does it hurt.

“They told me it would be extremely painful,” Hartley said. “It felt like I got hit by a truck the first week. I couldn’t do anything. I was in ICU for eight days, just being waited on by nurses.”

Hartley was assured by the doctors that the steel bar would be removed after a couple of years, his chest would look normal and he would have a full recovery.

Hartley also was told he would be able to play volleyball with the bar in his chest, but he was restricted from any kind of physical activity for three months. During that time he lost 15 pounds and virtually all of his stamina.

At home, Hartley slept in a recliner because it was too uncomfortable to lie down. At school, his classmates would help carry his backpack and books for him.

It wasn’t until late November that Hartley had recovered enough from the surgery and adjusted to having the metal bar in his chest to be given clearance for athletic activity.

His first day back in the weight room was a joyous, but baffling one.

“I couldn’t do anything,” he said, laughing. “Before I could do 50 pushups in one outing. After the surgery, I couldn’t even do one.”

Hartley started with lifting weights, and by Christmas was back on track toward returning to volleyball. This was good news for Providence coach Brett Krapil, who admitted to being a little anxious about how he was going to handle the situation.

“Sure. I mean, you never know what can happen,” he said. “This is a serious surgery that we’re talking about, putting a steel bar through somebody’s chest cavity to push it forward.

“We had no idea what the recovery was going to be like and how he was going to bounce back.”

Hartley said Krapil was one of his greatest supporters during his recovery period.

“He kind of took me under his wing and helped me through all the school stuff and getting back in the swing of things like the weight room and open gyms,” Hartley said. “He knew how I was struggling. He really helped me a lot.

“There was no doubt I wanted to play, but for awhile I kind of thought maybe it might be a lot harder to get back into it. But once I started going, there was no doubting.”

Hartley said one of his biggest moments occurred during an open gym when a teammate, one of the hardest hitters on the team, let fly with a spike.

“He hit me right in the chest,” Hartley said, smiling. “It felt so bizarre, just like (his chest was) a steel plate. Before that I thought I wasn’t going to touch anything with my chest. When that happened, I felt the adrenalin kick in.”

Hartley not only made the team, but was in the starting lineup at middle hitter for the 2013 season opener against Marist.

“It was pretty cool,” Hartley said. “Even though we lost, for me it was a feeling like I’d made it, in a way, from surgery to that point. It was really satisfying.”

Hartley was a regular contributor for the Celtics and closed out his season, and volleyball career, with a flourish, landing five kills in a regional championship game loss to Lincoln-Way East.

“It meant a lot to me to play my senior season,” said Hartley, who will turn his attention to marine biology at Carroll University in Wisconsin. “It kept me busy. If I didn’t play this year it would have disappointed me a lot because I’d be missing out on all of memories.”

Hartley laughed when I asked him if, when the metal bar is removed from his chest, he’ll ask if he can keep it.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know if they’ll let me. It’s kind of freaky sometimes because I can feel it. But it’s my protector.”



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