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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Why Did I Survive My Brush With Death on a Baseball Field?

Hayden Walton

This has been a tragic spring, with thousands of American lives lost,  or savagely disrupted, by tornadoes in the Southeast and Midwest.

It's hard to compare stories of tragedy, to determine which is more sad or disturbing. But one that touched me deeply came last week when a youth baseball player died after being hit in the chest with a thrown ball. It happened in Winslow, Arizona, the town made famous by Jackson Browne and the Eagles in the timeless hit "Take It Easy" ("I was standin' on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, and such a fine sight to see . . . ).

Hayden Walton, 13, tried to bunt a pitch, but it hit him in the chest. Walton took a few steps toward first base before collapsing. He died the next morning.

Baseball is the quintessential American game. Some of my fondest memories as a kid are of playing baseball, both the informal kind in someone's backyard or an open field and the organized kind, which I played in various leagues from age 8 up into high school. The thought of a child dying while playing baseball  is so implausible that it scrambles the mind.

The Hayden Walton story hits particularly close to home because I probably came a few microseconds away from meeting a similar fate when I was 9 years old.

Walton died from commotio cordis, which is a disruption of the heart rhythm from a blow to the chest during a critical time in the heart beat. The name of the condition comes from the Latin for "agitation of the heart." What happens during commotio cordis? Here is how a medscape.com article describes it:

Commotio cordis typically involves young, predominantly male, athletes in whom a sudden, blunt, nonpenetrating and innocuous-appearing trauma to the anterior chest results in immediate cardiac arrest and sudden death from ventricular fibrillation. The rate of resuscitation is low but improving. Although commotio cordis usually involves impact from a baseball, it has also been reported during hockey, softball, lacrosse, karate, and other sports activities in which a relatively hard and compact projectile or bodily contact caused impact to the person's precordium. Nearly 250 cases have been reported to the National Commotio Cordis Registry. . . . Despite a recent increase in registry cases because of increased awareness, the entity is still probably underreported.

Deaths from commotio cordis are relatively rare, but I seem to read about one or two cases every summer. And each time, the stories touch me deeply.

I was struck in the chest by a pitch when I was 9 years old, while playing in a Kiwanis league baseball game in my hometown of Springfield, Missouri. It was 1966, and at the time, I don't think many people had heard of commotio cordis; I sure hadn't. It wasn't until about 30 years later that I read about a young baseball player dying from a blow to the chest and first heard the term commotio cordis. My reaction? "How in the world did I manage to survive? Why am I still here?"

I played organized sports, in one form or another, well into my 30s, and that pitch to the chest was far and away my scariest moment in competition. I remember pretty much all of the details. My team was Dixon's Hornets, and we were playing our season opener at Harry Carr Park (which I understand was plowed under for some sort of development several years ago). The opposing team was Bob's Bluestreaks, and they had probably the best pitcher in our league, a kid named Richie Voyles. I don't recall ever getting a hit off Richie Voyles. But he hit me with a pitch I will never forget.

The distance from the pitching rubber to home plate for 9 year olds was not much, well short of the 60 feet, 6 inches that you usually see for high schools up to the major leagues. I'm guessing it was 48 feet or so, and when a kid like Richie Voyles could really bring it, there wasn't much time to react.

I don't remember the count, but I think it was the first pitch of my first at-bat of the season. The pitch was heading inside from the moment it left Richie's hand, and for some reason, I turned into it. If I had turned away from it, it would have hit me in the back. It would have hurt, but I would have taken my base and been little worse for wear.

Because I turned into the pitch, it caught me square in the chest. The thought that I could be hit by a pitch--particularly one thrown that hard--I don't think had ever occurred to me. I didn't fall down or even bend over; I was so shocked by the force of the pitch that I just stood there for a moment, finally gathering myself to trot to first base.

When I got home and took my shirt off, I discovered an imprint of stitches from the baseball on my chest, right on the breastbone. The mark stayed for several days.

I don't recall ever crying as a result of a sporting event. But I do remember tears coming to my eyes as I stood on first base that night, struggling to catch my breath. It was my first encounter with fear on the baseball field, and it took me a while to get over it. I developed a habit of bailing out on pitches, my left leg "stepping in the bucket" out of fear that I would get nailed again. I'm not sure I got a hit that entire season, and I got used to seeing my name at the bottom of our batting order.

It was probably a year and a half before I managed to "hang in there" at the plate and become a decent hitter again. But I never totally forgot how much it can hurt to be hit by a thrown ball. That might be one reason I never fulfilled my dream of becoming center fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals. A shortage of talent might be another.

I did have a pretty good throwing arm, which my coaches discovered when I caught a fly ball in right field and threw out a runner trying to advance from second to third base. They turned me into a pitcher, and that remained my primary position well into high school.

Fortunately, I had pretty good control and never walked or hit too many batters. But I do recall feeling terrible when I let one go on the inside, and it hit a batter.

How did I survive my close encounter with commotio cordis? I will never know for sure. Most articles I've read indicate the blow has to come at a certain spot on the chest, at a certain point in the heart rhythm. If it comes at one point in the heart beat, you are fine; if it comes at a second point in the heart beat, you are dead. In most cases of commotio cordis, no underlying heart defect is present. It's all a matter of location and timing.

In my case, the imprint from the ball's stitches was right on the breast bone, in the center of my chest. Best I can tell, that location is prime territory for commotio cordis. According to this article, the heart is in the middle of the chest, tilted so that slightly more of it is to the left of the breastbone than to the right, as you look down at your own chest. Would I still be here if the pitch had struck, say, a half inch to the left? Maybe not.

There is no question that the ball was thrown hard enough to cause commotio cordis. (I'm telling you, Richie Voyles could bring serious heat; he was the Nolan Ryan of our league. Another outstanding pitcher was Sammy Miller of the Superior Tilers. We called him "Sudden Sam" because, like Voyles, he could get the ball to the plate in a hurry. Thankfully, Sudden Sam had pinpoint control, and I never was afraid of him. In fact, I recall getting a few hits off him over the years. But Voyles was a different story. He could be a little wild, with a deceptive motion, and I was never terribly anxious to dig in with him on the mound.)

Timing, I suspect, was the key factor in my case. Researchers believe that commotio cordis occurs when a blow to the chest upsets the electrical rhythm of the heart at a critical moment in the heart beat. Think about your heart beat, and then try to think about a few microseconds within that heart beat. At one microsecond during a trauma to your body, you are alive; at another microsecond, you are dead. That's probably how close I was to being a goner.

One of the best technical articles I've seen on commotio cordis can be found here:

Sudden cardiac death by commotio cordis: Role of mechano-electric feedback

I've shared my baseball-to-the-chest story several times with Mrs. Schnauzer. (OK, make that many times, so much that she starts to roll her eyes when she hears it begin now.) The experience does raise this cosmic question: Why am I still here?

During particularly dark moments in our legal travails, Mrs. Schnauzer has been known to cry out, "Why are we here? Are we supposed to just take abuse for the rest of our lives, to sit back and be ruined?"

I don't always have good answers to questions like that. But since that summer evening in 1966, every moment of my life has essentially been "gravy." My little spot in this world probably should have ended when I was 9 years old. Why it didn't, now that I've become fairly knowledgeable about commotio cordis, is beyond me.

I don't spend a lot of time thinking about the night I nearly died. But when I read about a youngster like Hayden Walton, I grieve--and I think about my place in this world. Why am I still here?

Do those thoughts drive this blog, have they fueled our fight against injustice? Maybe they have.

I do know this: When I was 9 years old, I faced something far more scary than anything a corrupt judge or lawyer can bring. I'm not fearless--far from it. But I do have a sense that I must have been spared for a reason. I want the extra time I've been given to count for something.

Mrs. Schnauzer and I are just two regular folks who never sought a battle over judicial corruption. In fact, I didn't want any battles at all; I would have been perfectly happy with wonderful pets, a few good books to read, sports teams to pull for, an interesting job, and a relatively pain-free life. (Plus a gorgeous, intelligent wife; whew, glad I remembered to put that in there!) Someone upstairs apparently had other plans.

I pray for Hayden Walton and his family and friends. I pray for a young pitcher who must be feeling terrible guilt about what happened that night in Winslow, Arizona. I pray for the other players who were on that field, who probably will never see baseball the same way again. And I pray that those kids grow up in a more just world, where the law is applied fairly and correctly to all.

If this little blog can help make that happen, then maybe I'll know why I was spared.


jeffrey spruill said...

God chose the foolish to shame the wise.

God chose the weak to shame the strong.

Anonymous said...

Maybe God left you here because of this blog. I learned about judicial corruption in the courts the hard way, and then learned I was not alone on your blog. You've helped me a lot through my legal travails, if nothing but kind words.

The Riley-ites may wish you'd been taken away as a kid. I, for one, am happy you're still here fighting for what's right.

Rich (Richie) Voyles said...

Sorry, I didn't mean to hit you, just move you away from the plate.

legalschnauzer said...

Richie: If that is really you, thanks so much for writing. You were one heckuva pitcher, and I'm glad we've both survived this long. Loved playing Kiwanis baseball, and Bob's Bluestreaks (your team) and Superior Tilers were always tough.

Hope you are doing well. BTW, I later got to play one year with Bluestreaks. Jeff McMillen and I became good friends, and you probably remember him. All the best.