After undergoing four surgeries in eight days, Nick Hamel needed to fight.
The 19-year-old was in poor condition after an everyday procedure went terribly wrong and a sepsis developed in his stomach last spring. That’s when Nick’s father, Randy Hamel, took over his Facebook and sent a message out to members of the Central Florida women’s golf team.
Their response helped save his life.
“We decided that he’s always there for us so we need to go be there for him. So we went and we talked to him,” said Robyn Doig, a junior on the team. “His doctors actually came to us when we came back the second time and they were like, ‘Thank goodness you came because after the last time you came his vitals went up. It was purely emotional. I honestly think you guys helped him to get better.’”
The response was natural for the golfers, they were helping out their biggest fan.
Less than a year after surviving the illness that has a mortality rate close to 50 percent, according to the Mayo Clinic, Nick couldn’t help but fight off tears.
“It was pretty amazing,” he said.
Nick was born with spina bifida, which affects about eight babies born every day, according to the Spina Bifida Association. The condition occurs when the unborn child’s spinal column does not close all the way in the womb. It paralyzed Nick from the waist down.
Nick has been wheelchair-bound his entire life, riding a roller coaster of medical complications along the way. He developed hydrocephalus, a buildup of excess fluid inside his skull. A shunt in his head redirects that fluid from his skull to a different part of his body. His vocal cords are paralyzed, so doctors inserted a trachea and feeding tube in his body to assist with basic functions.
All in all, Nick has undergone close to 50 surgeries since 1995.
But that hasn’t stopped him from meeting more professional athletes than most people could hope for in a lifetime.
He’s met Tiger Woods and Alex Rodriguez and developed personal relationship with dozens of professional baseball players. Nick has a book dedicated to him – “Nobody’s Perfect: Two Men, One Call, and a Game for Baseball History” – written by MLB pitcher Armando Galarraga and umpire Jim Joyce. His father, Randy Hamel, wrote the book “Baseball’s Unknown Angel,” chronicling some of Nick’s interactions with pro ball players.
“Sport is a way for him to meet people,” Hamel said. “He develops relationships that I could never develop. He naturally meets people and people will seem to like him after one time. I’m the opposite – they meet me and they’re like, ‘Asshole.’ So I don’t know where he gets that from.”
Nick has a special affection for the UCF women’s golf team, whom he met at RedTail Golf Club when the team hosted its tournament, the UCF Challenge, there in 2007.
“It’s his way of living through their eyes. When they’re on the course, he’s on the course with them,” Hamel said.
The feeling is mutual.
“He’s kind of like our No. 1 fan/assistant coach,” head coach Emily Marron said. “He knows the game very well. He studies the game. When we go to tournaments, he’s on Golfstat the whole time. I know when I get back to the hotel I’m going to have some comments from Nick like, ‘Why did you get double bogeys on No. 12?’ It’s something that we’ve embraced as a team.”
Marron keeps in touch with Nick through Facebook, sharing messages with him daily, and many of the players keep in contact through texting and visits at UCF sporting events. Marron has come to expect Nick’s critiques on the team’s performance when she gets back to her computer after a tournament.
After visiting Nick at the hospital last year, the golfers wrote the initials NH on their balls before playing in an NCAA regional tournament in Auburn, Ala.
“Sometimes when you see someone like that you want to feel sorry for them, but when you talk to Nick, he has the most optimistic outlook,” Marron said. “His spirit is kind of contagious.”
On Feb. 11, Nick shared a piece of history with the team.
As Fanny Cnops, a junior at UCF, walked the fairways of Eagle Creek Golf Club in Orlando, Fla., Hamel pushed Nick along not far behind on the cart path.
The father-son duo looked on as Cnops played to a medalist finish, sealing the deal with an 8-foot birdie putt on the downhill-sloping 18th green.
After waiting anxiously for about 15 minutes, the Knights were informed that they won by a mere stroke. Nick celebrated with the team, wearing a UCF hat on his head and a huge smile on his face.
“It was nerve-wracking, let me tell you that much. It was impressive though,” Nick said.
The Knights have climbed to No. 14 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings after posting two wins and seven top-three finishes so far this season. Cnops has been a big part of that, earning the No. 43 spot in Golfweek‘s individual rankings.
“Fanny’s really playing well. That putt she hit on 18 on Tuesday. If that doesn’t go in, we’re saying different things. They just have to keep playing and keep fighting.”
Hamel had the chance to watch his son graduate from Lake Mary High School one day removed from being confined to a hospital bed last spring. After Nick’s near-death experience, the proud father retired from a job he held at AT&T for more than 25 years so he could spend more time with his son.
“It means a lot,” Nick said. “He’s my best friend.”
Hamel said that Nick has taught his wife and older son, “the meaning of life.”
“If you’re hurting, he’s hurting. If you have a broken hand and he’s going into brain surgery, he’s more worried about you having a cast on your hand than his brain surgery,” Hamel said. “I don’t know if that’s a side effect of spina bifida and it’s the only benefit of spina bifida, that it makes you what God would want – to care about others before yourself.
“For that aspect, spina bifida is a blessing, and for the other aspects it’s a horrible thing. You can ask him if he could take spina bifida away from him, but change his personality, would he do it.”
Randy turned to his son and asked, “Would you, Nick?”
Nick answered quickly and simply.