Monday, January 26, 2009

The Sky is The Limit

RT Staff Note: We were touched by this story from the Reno Gazette-Journal and staff writer JUSTIN LAWSON.

As long as Janet Simpson heard the familiar beep of the brain scan monitor, everything was OK.

But a sound out of turn — the wrong beep — could signal too much pressure on her son’s brain. Too much stimulation for a young brain that had experienced severe trauma. The wrong beep could’ve been triggered just by touching her son’s hand.

“We couldn’t talk more than a whisper,” she said.

Reno High graduate and baseball fanatic Drew Simpson was barely 18 years old when a fall down the steps at his older brother’s home almost took his life.

Unconscious and in a hospital bed at Renown Medical Center, he hardly resembled the young college baseball player who was supposed to be worrying about making it to class on time. Tubes supplied him with his daily food, air pumped straight into his lungs and the skin on the side of his head was peeled back to relieve swelling in his brain.

It was late August, and the former high school pitcher had come home from nearby Feather River College, where he was also planning to play baseball, to celebrate his girlfriend’s birthday.

He did not make it back to school.

He was not given a chance to live when he first arrived at the hospital. Hope and pray, doctors told his family.

Simpson spent 11 days in a coma, almost six weeks in the hospital and five months in occupational therapy. He has two titanium plates and 48 screws in his skull.

But he is alive. His family, his friends, his teammates — they all believe he is a miracle.

“My dream was to play baseball since forever and ever, but it’s really changed ever since this happened,” Drew said. “Now, I just want to love everybody, never hate one thing. It’s just really brightened my eyes. I don’t regret one thing because I feel like I’m a whole lot better than I ever was.”

By fall, doctors say Drew could be back on the road to achieving his dream. But baseball may be just a vehicle to spread the message he learned after what happened on Aug. 24, 2008 — Live in love.

“He’s impacted people whether they know him or not just by seeing what he has gotten through,” said Patrick O’Brien, a friend of the Simpson family. “And I believe he wants to give back, no doubt.”

Left for Dead
As a right-handed starter, Drew helped pitch the Huskies to the semifinal round of the Nevada state 4A baseball tournament last spring.

He had just finished his first week at Feather River College in Quincy, Calif., a short hour and half drive away from his family and his girlfriend, Anne Goodman, who was a year behind him at Reno High.

On Aug. 24, after celebrating Goodman’s birthday with she and her family, Drew left to spend the night at his brother’s home. Drew went inside, but had trouble falling asleep. Around 5 a.m., he stepped outside to get some air, and became ill, thinking something he ate that night didn’t sit right.

Drew fell backwards down the switchback stairs leading to the front door of the house and hit the back of his head on the corner of the concrete stairs.
“All I heard was screaming,” said Ryan Simpson, who was sleeping when his brother fell. “I went to the front, saw him laying and not moving, bleeding out of his eyes and his ears.”

Ryan said his brother went into a panic attack and stopped breathing. He tried to calm his brother down while they waited about 10 minutes for an ambulance to come. Not even the paramedics gave him a chance to live.

“We drove to the hospital with the lights off and they stopped at every single stop light,” Ryan said. “They didn’t think he was going to make it. He lost consciousness as soon as they put him in the back.”

When he arrived at Renown Medical Center, Drew Simpson was immediately taken in for a CAT scan. Doctors found severe damage to the front, back, left and right sides of his brain.

“He had an injury to the brain with bruising to the brain and what bruising does is it causes the brain to swell,” said Dr. Lali Sekhon, the neurosurgeon who saw Simpson that night. “The problem with swelling in the brain is that if things swell inside the brain the pressure goes up and the blood can’t get in there, the brain dies. If the pressure get’s bad enough, the brain dies and the more it dies, the more it swells. Once you start that vicious cycle, if we don’t get that pressure down really quickly and keep it down then a lot of our patients with head injuries can die.

“If someone told me in a year’s time that he’s playing baseball again and he’s exactly as he was before, with the way things are now, I wouldn’t be surprised. If you would have asked me that when he came in, I would have said that ain’t going to happen.”

Doctors were unable to provide even the slimmest of chances for survival. Over the next three days Simpson underwent two surgeries to remove two pieces of his skull as the team tried to reduce the swelling and pressure on his brain. If he did live, there was a significant chance that he would have permanent brain damage.

“There were two specific times the doctors were somewhat prepping the family to decide, “Do you want to take the chance of him surviving and him becoming a vegetable, and if so you have to understand what it entails, and if not you have to make the decision of whether or not you want to take the chance for him?’” said O’Brien, who served as buffer between the doctors and the Simpsons.

“It’s tough to say I remember this, but I prayed for my family,” Drew Simpson said. “I wanted to come back to see my family, I couldn’t do this to them.”

Meanwhile, the news of Simpson’s accident spread through Reno, via phone calls and text messages among friends, former teammates and even opposing baseball players. The Simpsons received hundreds of Drew’s friends and former baseball teammates at the hospital, and his father Scott provided daily updates via text message to some 300 people. The Reno baseball team honored Simpson the week after his accident by wearing their road polo shirts at school.

“It was a very difficult time to see Drew and his family go through that tough stretch,” Reno baseball coach Pete Savage said. “It was tough on them first obviously and then it was tough on the team, but I was really proud of the support the team showed. We truly are a family, a baseball family, and the support that everyone showed was truly amazing for Drew.

“Stories don’t always end like this. And his story is going to go on and on and on.”

Signs of Progress
The swelling in Simpson’s brain began to gradually reduce, though he was still in a coma. He did, however, show that he hadn’t given up.

“His first motion was he lifted up his right arm and pretended he was throwing a baseball,” Ryan Simpson said. “I knew then that he was probably coming out of the coma.”

Simpson woke up on Sept. 4, 11 days after his accident. It would be another two days before his eyes tracked movement.

During one of his twice daily visits, Savage gave Simpson a foam ball. From there, it appeared as if things were going his way.

“Drew would throw it to people,” his father said. “People would be sitting (in the room), he would track his eyes, lift his arm up and just flip the ball up in the air and they just loved it. They knew that was when he was coming back. That’s when you knew he was going to be healthy again.”

Simpson eventually was transferred to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, where he was to begin rehabilitation for the next 30 days. But he stayed for just two weeks after regaining most of his motor skills. He could walk without help, brush his teeth, take a shower and even tie his shoes.

Simpson wore a helmet to protect the exposed areas of his brain, which were left open to continue the release of pressure. The left skin flap was reattached in late October and the right side in mid-November. Both sides were repaired with a plastic shell, titanium plates and 24 screws, all of which are permanent.

“The kid is just an incredible young man to go what he has gone through,” Savage said. “I mean we always knew he was tough on the baseball field and tough on the mound, you know a real competitive kid. But when you experience something like that, sports become secondary.”

Return to the Mound
Simpson doesn’t remember much about the accident.

“I didn’t even know why I was in the hospital,” he said. He still struggles to remember some of the events during his recovery. Memory lapses are typical now, but are likely to get better.

“He’s already beaten the odds in terms of getting this good and he’s only a few months out from his head injury,” Sekhon said. “So he’s going to have a recovery from his head injury ongoing for the next year or two. So it is conceivable that he may go back to normal or have very little in the way of dysfunction. It’s sort of the sky is the limit here.”

Simpson went to Moana Stadium a few weeks ago with his brother Ryan and shagged fly balls in center field. Ryan Simpson said he looks like he’s throwing in the low 80-mph range, just off the high 80s he threw during his senior season.

“It felt so amazing,” Drew Simpson said. “Right after my last surgery, cause I had four, after my last two my head was getting really sore easily so I kind of laid down (most of the time). So it was amazing to throw a baseball again. It drives me to play again.”

Simpson hopes to throw out the first pitch for the Reno Huskies before a home game this season, and do the same for Feather River, which still has a locker with his name on it. “He’ll get back on the field and it’s going to be an incredible sight to see because from where he was to where he is today, I mean, it truly is a miracle,” Savage said.

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