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In the game of life, a winning attitude; Referee fights his way back from near-death experience

Matt Perillo sat in a wheelchair in his living room in Lancaster presenting a pretty convincing case for how lucky he is.

Most recent double amputees whose active lifestyle included officiating high school basketball and football games wouldn't feel that way. But Perillo is different. Very different.

While he's staring at life-changing mobility challenges, his fate could have been much worse after he contracted septicemia, a bacteria in the blood that often occurs with severe infection. Doctors gave Perillo a 20 percent chance to live, but this longtime official was determined to have this call go his way.

"Just living through the septicemia -- most people come out and either have brain damage right away or suffer a stroke immediately, or don't make it, and I made it," said the 47-year-old Perillo. "At first I thought it would be half the foot, or maybe the foot, but it turned into a lot more than that. You know what, so I've lost my legs -- I'm alive. That's not a bad tradeoff."

Jan. 12 was a typical day at work for Perillo at the Lancaster Recreation Department, where he has worked since 1994. In the early afternoon he began experiencing symptoms of a fever. He left work, and the next morning went to the doctor. Before he could sit down, the doctor called an ambulance.

He was rushed to Buffalo General Hospital. By that time his circulation was impeded. His blood had turned septic and suddenly he was fighting for his life. His wife of 22 years, Karen, and daughters Hanna, 16, and Jillian, 18, were called in and he was given last rites.

"He had a near-death experience. He saw dead aunts and uncles. He wasn't supposed to make it," said fellow football official and 20-year friend Matt Palma. "He knows he's lucky to be alive. When I visited him in the hospital, he was the poster child for everyone in the medical corridor. Some lady came into his room and said she wrote a prayer, and they prayed together."

Perillo fell into a coma that lasted two weeks. His blood pressure dropped as low as 65-over-47. During that time he credits the treatment he received with vasopressors, medications used to raise blood pressure, with saving his life. His stay in the hospital lasted 69 days. New issues surfaced after the coma, the most serious the lack of circulation to his hands and feet.

Doctors were able to save his hands, but the damage to his feet was irreversible.

"Just like that my life turned in a totally different direction. I've been so healthy all my life," he said. "I was so sick for so long that it really does scare me to get sick again. A simple bacteria -- every day people have cuts and have these things, and mine turned into this life-altering thing."

With every intention of getting back on the field, Perillo opted to have his feet removed using the Ertl procedure, which builds a horizontal bone bridge below the tibia and fibula, making it strong enough to support activities such as running.

The highly specialized procedure was not available locally, so he was flown by Mercy Flight to a hospital in Kalamazoo, Mich., where his feet were amputated a few inches above his ankles.

Doctors still don't know how the bacteria entered Perillo's body. They tried to culture the bacteria, but couldn't get anything to grow. Having the answers isn't as important as having their father, said Hanna, a junior at Sacred Heart Academy.

"I'm always looking at this like, 'Oh my gosh, how are we going to get through this as a family' and he's pulled us through," she said. "He's been my inspiration through this all. Even the father-daughter dance that Sacred Heart has every year, he's determined to go this year [April 20]. That's one thing me and him are doing together."

Perillo will be fitted with prosthetic legs, which will help him learn to walk again and some day allow him to resume his 17-year career as an official. Typically a back judge on a five-man football crew, his years in stripes have been special.

He officiated the Orchard Park at Clarence football game where both teams showed up wearing the same colors and Clarence played the game in yellow pinnies. Through his work with youth, he remembers James Starks of Niagara Falls and the Gronkowskis of Williamsville when they were about 10 years old playing Little Loop football. He watched Mike Williams of Riverside and John Urschel of Canisius dominate their leagues and had Jehuu Caulcrick and Clymer at The Ralph.

Thanks to the many relationships he's fostered over the years, Perillo has worked his way to the top of many coaches' preferred lists. His integrity is genuine and his enthusiasm for life unrivaled. His ties to the West Seneca community, where he was raised, and Lancaster, where he lives, are just as strong. He played football and basketball at West Seneca West before graduating in 1983.

His numerous friends in both towns want to get Perillo back on his feet physically and financially. They have organized a fundraiser June 9 at the Chicken Coop, 299 Leydecker Road, West Seneca. For more information or to donate, go to www.matthewperillofundraiser.tumblr.com.

"For me, it's easier to give than to receive. Receiving is hard, it's not my nature," Perillo said. "They didn't even tell me about this fundraiser until I was home, sitting on the couch and medicated. I'm a proud man, and I like to take care of my family as best I can. It's really going to be hard for me to have this fundraiser because I love all the people who will be there, and I would do anything for them."

email: mmonnin@buffnews.com