The long and winding road to recovery
By WESLEY REMMER
Central Kitsap Reporter Sports writer
July 18, 2008 · Updated 4:07 PM
Kyle Baumgartner had his life changed forever while trying to break up a fight.
Kyle Baumgartner knows how to handle a curveball; he’s got baseball in his blood.
A standout shortstop at Olympic High School, Olympic College and Central Washington University, and a 1999 Major League Draft pick, Baumgartner’s niche is the diamond.
Until fall 2005, nine days before Halloween, Baumgartner talked, walked and breathed baseball. He was baseball.
But an unexpected October twist, a curveball thrown by life’s random hand, suddenly put bats and balls on the back burner.
Married to wife, Lindsay, who was five months pregnant with the couple’s second child, Baumgartner’s path took a wild turn on Oct. 22, 2005.
Now 27, Baumgartner reflects on what he calls “the incident that forever changed my life.”
In Ellensburg to play an alumni baseball game, seeing friends and former teammates for the first time in two years, Baumgartner enjoyed a “reunion of sorts” with his closest college counterparts.
They went to a local bar early one evening where a scuffle broke out between Baumgartner’s buddy and a random man.
“There was a guy there looking to pick a fight,” Baumgartner recalled.
After the man threw a punch, Baumgartner stepped between the two, hoping to prevent a larger brawl. But the man shoved Baumgartner to the ground, slamming his head against the cement.
“It sounded like a watermelon cracking...,” Baumgartner described. “I remember my friend rubbing my head, asking, ‘Are you OK?’”
What follows, Baumgartner cannot recollect.
The blow to his head resulted in an acute subdural hematoma, a collection of blood between the outer layer and middle layer of the covering of the brain, often times fatal.
A few minutes later Baumgartner was unconscious and his friends called 911. He was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where a CAT Scan revealed severe damage.
Baumgartner slipped into a coma — for 10 days — and doctors weren’t sure he’d ever come to.
But as October slipped into November, Baumgartner woke, having only a doctor’s word to explain what happened.
“They said I had been in an accident, but not what kind of accident,” said Baumgartner, who couldn’t move the right side of his body after waking up.
“It was there, I could see it, but I couldn’t move it,” he said.
The hematoma caused neurological damage, leaving Baumgartner’s right-side limbs virtually immobile.
Swelling forced doctors to remove about one-third of his skull, giving the tissue around the brain room to balloon and eventually heal.
“All the blood and swelling was inside my skull,” Baumgartner said. “The doctors had told Lindsay I would be in a skilled nursing facility the rest of my life, she was absolutely crushed.”
After 42 days in a hospital bed, days he calls “absolute hell,” Baumgartner was released to begin recovery, absent one-third of his skull.
He wore a helmet, walked with a cane and completed physical therapy almost daily, trying to regain the once thoughtless movements lost through neurological damage.
“I hated physical therapy, it was so tiring, it was so exhausting,” he said. “I knew they were trying to help me but I just didn’t want to go.”
Three-and-a-half months after his release from the hospital, on Feb. 13, 2006, the swelling in Baumgartner’s head subsided and doctors repaired his skull, using 74 staples and 20 stitches to sew his head together.
Lindsay gave birth to the couple’s son, Kohen, eight days later.
That eight-day stretch, having an operation on his skull and welcoming a son into the world, were simply incredible, Baumgartner said.
“It put things in perspective, big time,” he added.
Doctors soon gave Baum-gartner an Ankle-Foot-Orthosis (AFO), a plastic device intended to hold his foot in a flexed position while he relearned how to walk. But the AFO, he said, was uncomfortable and resulted in “clonus,” involuntary shaking of the foot.
“Walking across the street tuckered me out,” he explained.
Discouraged, drained and down, Baumgartner struggled to get out of the house, preferring to watch television rather than go to rehab.
“To go from worrying about throwing a baseball and hitting a guy in the chest, to not even being able to pick up a baseball, is devastating,” he said.
A year ago, however, doctors outfitted Baumgartner with a Bioness NESS L300, an advanced foot-drop system that uses mild stimulation to lift the foot. Its three main parts — a leg cuff, gait sensor and hand-held remote control — use wireless communication to “talk” to each other, making it easier to walk on flat ground, up and down stairs and on uneven surfaces.
He also received a Bioness NESS H200, a similar device for the hand.
“They need this technology in Silverdale,” said Baumgartner, who made several trips to Seattle for Bioness therapy. “I really could have benefited a lot more from going to therapy sessions in Silverdale with my unit on.”
Now, the Bioness devices and a loving support group are making Baumgartner’s recovery bearable — and successful.
“I was fortunate enough to have my family around, I mean a huge support group,” he said. “There’s a lot of people out there who don’t have that.
“I have so much more energy now, (the Bioness) kick-started my recovery. My rehab doctor told me, about a year ago, she will not put a cap on how far I could go.”
Baumgartner called his wife “the rock” who led — and continues to lead — his recovery, emphasizing her will to persevere through the accident while five months pregnant.
“If you want to feel sorry for somebody, it should be her because she went through it all,” he said. “She truly is the one who was in turmoil. I couldn’t imagine. She is the perfect combination of ‘I’m sorry, honey’ to ‘do it yourself.’ She’s just been perfect. I can’t overstate that enough.”
And while the accident reshaped his life and outlook on the world, Baumgartner said he wouldn’t exchange his situation for anything.
“I knew from the second I was laying in that bed I could handle it,” he said. “I’m glad it happened to me and not somebody else.
“I would not take it back. I’ve seen the good come out of so many people that it would be silly to take it back.”
Lessons learned, Baum-gartner said, have helped him evaluate what — and who — is most important.
“To not take anything for granted. I was literally laying in bed, laying there thinking, ‘What did I not do beforehand that I wish I can do now?’” he said.
Today, Baumgartner hopes his story inspires others. He’s contemplating writing a book, but will wait for more time to pass.
“I just don’t know if I’m in the right place of mind right now,” he exaplined.
He continues to make strides, though some days are admittedly tougher than others, and is content in his Silverdale home with Lindsay, Kohen and 3-year-old daughter, Ella. He works for a local mortgage company.
“Mentally, I’ve accepted the fact that my life has been forever changed,” he said. “In the same token, it’s inspired me to get back as much as I can.”
That mental toughness, and two children and a wife, drive Baumgartner to fight every day.
“I am going to play catch with my son someday, I’m going to set a volleyball for my daughter, I will jog some day,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time. More than anything, I’m encouraged.”
The man who shoved Baumgartner was charged with third-degree assault and sent to jail. His lawyer cut a deal that let him work during the day, only having to spend 30 nights in jail.
While Baumgartner believes the charges were light, he chose not to pursue a lawsuit and has neither seen nor heard from the man since, though he’d like to.
“Do I resent him? Yes, but at the same time, I don’t... I don’t know, I can’t really answer that question,” he said. “He was just a punk 21-year-old kid at the time. I’ve moved past it.”Contact Central Kitsap Reporter Sports writer Wesley Remmer at firstname.lastname@example.org or (360) 308-9161.