By Hannah Breit, MD, Neurology Resident, Rush University Medical Center, and Lauren Koffman, DO, MS, Assistant Professor of Neurological Sciences, Rush University Medical Center; Section Editor: Michael Reznik, MD, Assistant Professor of Neurology & Neurosurgery, Brown University, Alpert Medical School/Rhode Island Hospital
April 20, 2018: It was a brisk and sunny day in Chicago. Danny and his wife Lexie woke up to the sounds of their three rambunctious children — a 7-year-old, a 2-year-old and an 8-month-old — and a house full of laughter and love. Danny was the picture of health: not just a fit 31-year-old family man, but a professional baseball player in the major leagues who was in the prime of his career. After his usual start to the day, he proceeded to prepare himself for that evening’s game against the Astros as per his usual pitcher’s routine, but what followed would prove to be the most life-altering baseball game of his life.
A Game to Remember
That evening, as Danny was standing on the White Sox pitcher’s mound getting ready to wind up and pitch, he suddenly developed a headache and neck pain that came on like a thunderclap. It was the last moment Danny remembered from that haunting day. He was immediately taken out of the game and brought to the dugout, where he proceeded to vomit and slip out of consciousness. In a whirlwind, he was rushed out of the stadium and taken via ambulance to Rush University Medical Center. Meanwhile, Lexie was in a stadium suite watching the game with a group of players’ wives, unaware of what had happened until she noticed a stir among the players in the dugout. Almost immediately, she felt a buzzing in her pocket, as family members called and messaged her asking where Danny had been taken. She rushed out to find him, children in tow, but had no idea just how serious the sequence of events that followed would be.
Danny regained consciousness en route to the hospital and greeted the paramedics with a curveball, hurling projectile vomit across the ambulance. When they got to the Emergency Department at Rush, a CT scan revealed significant bleeding in the areas around the base of Danny’s brain, a pattern of subarachnoid hemorrhage concerning for a ruptured aneurysm. Lexie had joined him by this point and remembers being rushed to Danny’s side in the emergency room. “I had an immediate sigh of relief when I was able to see him,” she says. “Up until that point, I had no idea if he was OK or not. He recognized me, and that was such a great feeling. When he was first admitted, I was very naive to everything and thought we would be out of the hospital in no time. When he was moved to the neuro-ICU … [that] was when I started to get more answers and the gravity of the situation started to kick in.”
He was found to have developed hydrocephalus — a buildup of pressure and cerebrospinal fluid in the ventricles in his brain — and, as a result, an extraventricular drain was placed to help drain some of the fluid. A CT angiogram looking at the blood vessels of the head and neck confirmed that Danny did in fact have a small aneurysm in his left middle cerebral artery — one of the major arteries providing blood to the left side of his brain — and that it was likely the underlying cause of the subarachnoid hemorrhage. In order to prevent it from bleeding again, he underwent a craniotomy and clip ligation, an open procedure in which neurosurgeons carefully placed clips around the base of the aneurysm to close it off and divert blood flow safely to the rest of the artery. He came back from the surgery on a breathing machine, and though he started waking up the following day and was able to come off the mechanical ventilator, his mental state continued to wax and wane. He was also found to have some weakness in the left side of his face near where the surgery had been performed and, more importantly, weakness in his right arm — his pitching arm and the source of his livelihood.
For Danny, these hectic, stress-filled few days remain little more than a story. “I wouldn't have my first memory until about five days later,” he says. “I’ll never forget looking into the mirror and seeing tubes coming out of my head and staples down the side of my face — with absolutely no idea why.”
The Waiting Game
Danny stayed in the neuro-ICU for over two weeks while he was being monitored for vasospasm and other dangerous complications that can occur after a subarachnoid hemorrhage. All that time spent in one place felt like an eternity, and the waiting was no easy feat for this athlete.
“The lack of autonomy was hard for me because I am the type of person who likes to take things into my own hands. I had to really focus on being patient and taking little steps at a time instead of leaps,” he recalls. “Being away from our children was exceptionally hard. They knew part of what was going on, but at the time my wife and I weren't sure the best way to handle it, so we tried to limit what they were told. They would visit us at the hospital, and as much as I wanted to see them, it was crushing having them see me in the state I was. On top of that, I am a professional athlete, and the future of my career was something that was so uncertain. I had a lot of anxiety and fear in regards to that.”
Within days of Danny coming off the ventilator, his personality and sense of humor began to emerge, like when he’d put on latex gloves and introduce himself as “Dr. Farquhar.” As his mood lightened, so too did the atmosphere, with family and friends constantly streaming in and out of the room, and an unlimited supply of snacks and sodas lining the walls. A Velcro baseball “dart” game hung from the wall, and Danny good-naturedly challenged the staff to throwing games. He fondly reminisces about the latter part of his ICU stay, once he started feeling more like himself. “Because I was so blessed to recover the way I did, my wife and I joke that it was one of the best vacations we’ve ever had! We would take walks around the unit, play games, watch movies and we would have had uninterrupted sleep if it wasn't for those pesky hourly neuro checks! My mom and sister also came the whole time I was in the hospital, and they make any situation a fun one. I was also so lucky with the nurses, doctors and staff. They laughed along with us and really were some of the most encouraging people.”
As the days went by, Danny could be found roaming the ICU hallways, IV pole in hand, cracking jokes with nurses and knocking on the residents’ workroom window just to say hello. Still, intermittent periods of confusion remained commonplace for him throughout his admission, and he sometimes had to be reminded where he was and which family members were visiting with him. But the one constant was his wife Lexie, who always remained steadfast at his side and was the pillar that supported him both in and out of the hospital.
One question haunted Danny every day he was in the ICU and the hospital, and the question came up every morning on rounds: “Will I ever play baseball again?” Baseball had shaped his life up until this point, and the thought of never being able to pitch again terrified him. “We’ll have to see” was an answer he heard often, as in “we’ll have to see how you do with physical therapy.” But Danny was a man on a mission. He had no intention of letting this ruptured aneurysm reshape the perfect life he and Lexie had built for themselves.
He was discharged home on May 7 and was cleared to gradually resume baseball activities starting in June. But the recovery process continues to this day. “[It] has definitely been eye-opening for me,” he says. “I remember my first workout thinking I could just go right back to what I was doing before. But all the strength I had been building for years was completely gone and, honestly, I am still working to get it back. I have really had to treat it as though I have a brand-new body … I do things completely different now.”
Back to the Mound
Months later, Danny found himself back on the same pitcher’s mound where his ordeal began, surrounded and cheered on by many of the physicians, nurses, therapists and lab technicians who helped care for him. After all he had been through, there he was throwing out the first pitch at a White Sox game. Cheers erupted as that first pitch soared from his hand straight into the catcher’s glove, and he couldn’t help but grin from ear to ear.
Danny believes his recovery was truly miraculous, and he learned a great deal about himself throughout the process. “The biggest takeaway for me was to not sweat the little things,” he says of his newfound perspective. “I used to get frustrated if I had a bad round of golf or a bad outing in baseball, but now I'm just thankful I am healthy enough to play both ... I am the absolute luckiest man in the world to have such incredible people in my life who will support me and my family when we need it the most.”
As a sign validating his recovery and how hard he had worked to make it back, he was signed by the Yankees to a minor league deal in January 2019. But he says that’s still not enough: “Right now, my biggest goal is to get back into the major leagues. I know I still have it in me, and I am not ready to hang up my cleats just yet.”