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ADAM HIMMELSBACH: Nino coaches Cougars while dealing with family crisis

J.T. Nino and his wife, Renee, were expecting twin boys this March.

By then, Nino would be finished coaching the Courtland girls basketball team, which is in the midst of a startling 27–0 season.

By then, he could turn his entire focus toward his family.

But sometimes life can take unexpected and unfortunate turns.

Nino never thought he’d spend most of the past month sleeping on a couch at a hospital in Washington, as one of his babies fights to survive.

“You bring something into this world, and then have the possibility of losing them within days,” Nino said. “It’s beyond scary. It’s pretty much unimaginable.”

Benjamin and Griffin Nino were born on Feb. 8, about one month premature, after Renee underwent a Caesarian section delivery.

The couple had not even completed the boys’ nursery yet.

The babies would be hospitalized for an extended time because they were at risk for complications such as pneumonia or infection.

But Benjamin’s prognosis quickly became more serious. He had a collapsed lung and a heart defect that required surgery, and he was listed in critical condition.

He was flown by helicopter to Children’s National Medical Center in Washington on Feb. 9.

The following night, Nino did not coach the Cougars in their regular-season finale against Caroline.

He told his assistants what had happened, but he did not want his players to be unsettled during their perfect season, so he just told them he had to be with family.

The Cougars won that game, just like they’ve won every other one, and they had little idea what their coach was going through.

“You go and you see your baby with tubes sticking out of him,” Nino said. “No 2-week-old should have to deal with something like that.”

For Nino, the past two weeks have been a whirlwind.

He has spent some days at his job as a systems engineer at Marine Corps Base Quantico.

He has spent his afternoons or evenings at Courtland’s games and practices.

And he has spent his nights curled up on a couch next to the incubator that Benjamin is lying in.

He wakes up each morning, drives back to Fredericksburg and does it all over again.

“I’m running on reserves,” he said. “I’m maybe getting three or four hours of sleep a night.”

Nino could have stepped away from this basketball team, and his players would have understood.

But he said it has helped to be with his players, to have a focus.

“Those girls are kind of like my eight daughters,” he said. “Really, basketball is kind of the only thing that’s been normal for me right now.”

Doctors said Benjamin could not undergo a heart procedure until his collapsed lung had healed, so J.T. and Renee spent three days waiting.

It has to be such an agonizing and hopeless feeling, knowing there is something wrong with your baby without being able to do anything about it.

Renee Nino was under orders to rest and recuperate after her pregnancy, but she still traveled to the hospital in Washington as often as she could.

“Her motherly instincts took over,” J.T. said. “No one was going to tell her not to.”

Thankfully, Benjamin’s lung healed on its own, and last Tuesday he underwent successful heart surgery.

He is still working through some effects of the heart problem, such as decreased blood flow, but he is stable and he is improving by the day.

The Ninos received some good news on Monday, when Griffin was released from the hospital. He is home with his mother now, while his father watches over his twin brother each night.

The family hopes that Benjamin will be allowed to go home in mid-March.

By then, the Courtland girls basketball team’s season will be over, state championship or not.

And by then, the nursery will be ready and waiting, and so will Benjamin’s family.

“We’ll have a story to tell them about this when they’re all grown up,” Nino said. “But it’ll be a good story.”

Adam Himmelsbach: 540/374-5442

ahimmelsbach@freelancestar.com

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