BY AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
The way Baseball Hall of Famer Rod Carew sees it, his body is in a slump.
The way his doctors see it, he’s winning the fight for his life.
Carew’s world took this drastic turn Sept. 20, when he suffered a heart attack while playing golf. A battle with heart failure ensued, spiraling to the point where he needed a new heart – but his body was too sick to handle a transplant.
Needing some way to help his damaged heart pump more efficiently, doctors implanted a battery-operated machine. It’s called an LVAD, a left ventricular assist device, and it could become his permanent companion. Or he could still get a transplant. Carew isn’t far enough along to know which it’ll be.
Yet he does know that sharing his story can help prevent other people from going through a similar ordeal.
That’s why Carew and his wife, Rhonda, detailed for the American Heart Association their roller-coaster ride of the past two months – from the shattering of his seemingly healthy life to embracing merely being alive for his 70th birthday, from panic attacks triggered by the first mention of a transplant to a recovery that reached new highs this past weekend when he went out to eat and to see a movie.
All he asks is to share this simple message: Just because you’re feeling fine, you might not be. Get checkups. Then do whatever the doctor recommends.
“I just want you guys to understand how fatal this can be,” Carew said Monday during a conference call with reporters. “Get yourselves checked. Don’t wait for it to happen. Everyone looks at me like I was healthy, but I was unhealthy. And, man, it got me.”
The notion of Carew being in a slump is hard to fathom for followers of his 19-year career for the Minnesota Twins and California Angels.
He was a Rookie of the Year and an MVP. He made the American League All-Star team an astounding 18 times in a row.
A solid defender and a terrific baserunner, Carew’s greatest skill was his left-handed swing.
He had the highest batting average in the American League four years in a row and six out of seven. He won seven batting titles on his way to a career average of .328 and 3,053 hits, both among the highest in big-league history. He was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame the first time he appeared on the ballot.
Although Carew’s final at-bat was 30 summers ago, he remains connected to the game as a coach and ambassador. Because he attends spring training for the Twins and is involved with the Angels each year, he always undergoes an annual physical for each club.
The only red flag those physicals ever found was high cholesterol. He received prescriptions for statins, but admittedly wasn’t always good about taking them.
On Sept. 19, Carew was the honorary chairman of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s annual Light The Night Walk at Angels Stadium in Anaheim, California.
It was a hot evening, but nothing could slow Carew. He took pictures with practically every walker and even jumped on stage to sing “Oye Como Va” with the band.
The next day, he went to hit some golf balls. After drilling a shot right down the middle of the fairway, he headed back to his cart and felt a burning sensation in his chest.
“My hands started getting clammy,” he said. “I remembered something a friend had told me – if anything is wrong with my chest, call a doctor right away. So I took his advice. I went back to the clubhouse and propped my legs up and told a lady to please call the paramedics right now.”
The next thing he remembers was hearing paramedics say: “Hurry. We’re losing him.”
At Riverside Community Hospital, doctors inserted three stents into Carew’s heart. Yet that turned out to be only part of the challenge.
In addition to having suffered the type of heart attack often called a “widowmaker” because of the low survival rate, he also was dealing with heart failure. That is, his heart wasn’t pumping enough blood, something measured by “ejection fraction.” A normal rate is 55 to 70 percent; he was at 10 percent. Doctors inserted a balloon pump as a temporary fix. Amidst it all, his heart stopped twice, requiring jolts from a defibrillator to revive it.
Doctors removed the pump the next day. When Carew came out of sedation, his first words were: “I dodged a bullet. God gave me a second chance at life.”
Carew was released a week later. Rhonda asked whether they could take a long-planned trip to Italy in October and the doctor said: “Absolutely. You’ve got to live every day to the fullest.”
At home, Carew struggled to breathe.
Neither diuretics, which flushed fluid from his body, nor oxygen provided enough relief.
Three days later, he saw a new cardiologist at Mission Hospital in Orange County. Within seconds of being introduced, the doctor said, “I don’t like what I’m seeing,” and admitted Carew for more tests.
Carew turned 70 the next day. Friends brought cake and ice cream. The mood was further lifted by talking about the Italy trip.
“It seemed like the doctors were just doing some adjustments,” Rhonda said, “and soon we’d be on our way again.”
The next morning, the cardiologist announced that Carew’s ejection fraction was down to 15 percent. He needed more advanced heart failure care than his hospital could provide.
“I see three ways this can go,” the doctor added. “Either it can be corrected by medication, you can have surgery to install a pump under your heart or you can have a heart transplant.”
That did it. Smashing his hope released every bottled-up emotion from the last few weeks – and triggered a series of panic attacks.
“He just went off the rails,” Rhonda said. “He was trying to escape. He wasn’t even coherent. He kind of went into a fugue state where he was like, ‘Run! I need to get out of here!’”
Rhonda, their son Devon and his girlfriend Mary took turns trying to calm him. Medication that was supposed to settle him did nothing, at least not until he conked out in the ambulance ride to hospital No. 3, Scripps Green in La Jolla.
Carew received another balloon pump and underwent more of the same tests.
His emotions were still so raw, the fact doctors weren’t doing anything different made him fear they’d run out of options.
“I don’t think I’m going to make it,” he told Rhonda. “I want you to promise me that if there’s nothing more that can be done, don’t let me just hang on.”
“OK,” she said, “but you’ve got to make me a promise. If there is something they can do, you’re going to do it.”
A few days later, their newest cardiologist outlined a new plan: An LVAD and a transplant.
Rhonda braced for another panic attack.
Instead, Rod nodded, thrilled to know something else could be done.
Carew transferred hospitals again, this time to a different Scripps facility in La Jolla.
Doctors removed his balloon pump one day and implanted the LVAD the next. There was hardly any other choice: The balloon pump had been maxed out, he was still too sick for a transplant and a donor heart hadn’t even been lined up.
The LVAD surgery was expected to take eight hours. It lasted closer to 6½.
Finally, something went better than expected.
All ballplayers go through batting slumps. Great players don’t stay in them very long.
Carew’s trick was to never expect a problem with his mechanics to fix itself. He’d arrive early to take extra swings. Then he’d visualize his at-bats, seeing himself sending balls down the lines and between outfielders.
The harder he worked, the quicker he’d snap out of it.
That’s the same approach he’s taking now.
“Through struggle comes strength,” he tells Rhonda. “I’ve got to get my form back, my timing, whatever is off.”
It’s worth noting that his heart is not slumping. Right now, with the LVAD, it is doing fine.
The problem is the rest of his body.
When his heart wasn’t pumping properly, his kidneys, liver and other organs didn’t get enough oxygen, so they are working to recover. Muscles and joints also withered, leaving him lacking strength, balance and endurance. Even putting on his shoes is tough.
For a guy who stole home 17 times in his career and twice led the American League in triples, the inability to consistently walk around the block is frustrating.
“He’ll do it one day, then the next time he can’t go as far,” Rhonda said. “It’s that inconsistency that he can’t handle. He’s like, `I don’t understand why it’s so hard.’ … He doesn’t realize how much he’s improved. He can’t see it, but I can. It wasn’t that long ago that he couldn’t swing two legs over the bed.”
Carew has a cane and a walker, but rarely uses them. As much as he wants to push himself, it wears him out.
“It’s not a good feeling to feel you want to lay down all the time and put your head on the pillow,” he said.
Still, he’s aiming to be golfing soon. He plans to attend TwinsFest in January and to be at spring training March 1-19. He’s also looking forward to being in Cooperstown, New York, in July for the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies; the upcoming summer will mark the 25th anniversary since he joined that exclusive fraternity.
The only way he’d disrupt those plans is if doctors decide to put him on the transplant waiting list and he needs to remain close to home.
“(Maybe) they’ll put me on the list and see if they can find a heart for me,” he said. “Otherwise, I’m just going to be battery-powered … like I’m the Bionic Man.”
Outside of a handful of relatives and friends, Carew’s condition was a closely guarded secret until Monday, when his story was first told by Sports Illustrated. American Heart Association News was allowed to tell his story second for a variety of reasons.
The obvious part is Carew becoming involved with the American Heart Association, the nation’s oldest and largest voluntary organization fighting cardiovascular diseases. Additionally, Carew’s longtime adviser, Frank Pace, grew up with Gerald Marx, MD, a pediatric cardiologist in Boston who was the American Heart Association’s Physician of the Year in 2013 and is a prominent volunteer with the organization. Dr. Marx connected Pace and the Carews with the AHA’s leaders, knowing that Carew and his story can help with awareness about the No. 1 killer of Americans.
Carew believes he can make a difference because, unfortunately, he’s done so before.
In 1995, his youngest daughter, Michelle, was diagnosed with leukemia, prompting him to launch a campaign for bone marrow donors. The nationwide registry grew by 70,000, although none were a match for Michelle. She died the following year at age 18. Nonetheless, he’s remained a supporter of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Be The Match and the American Cancer Society. His annual golf tournament has raised more than $3 million for the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation.
“I think it was maybe a day after (the heart attack), I started thinking, ‘How can I help the Heart Association?’ ” Carew said. “I’d like to warn people, let them know how important it is to get checked and to take care of their hearts.”
Carew hopes to be home by Christmas. He also hopes to eventually make that trip to Italy. While they’ve been before, reviving their itinerary holds obvious symbolic meaning. They’ve added it to the bucket list they keep.
Rod’s top items include visiting Trinidad to trace some of his family history, playing golf at St. Andrews in Scotland, jumping out of an airplane and being submerged into a shark tank.
“Nothing is going to deter Rod from accomplishing the things he still has set out to accomplish,” Rhonda said. “Some things may take longer, but they will be done.”
Despite all the progress he’s made, Carew admits his emotions often overwhelm him. There are many layers to it, from his appreciation for the devotion shown by Rhonda and Devon to his memories of Michelle’s struggle to the “Why me?” element that all survivors face.
“I sit down and I cry. I get up in the morning and I cry. So it’s been tough,” he said. “I’ve known for a long time that we’re not going to live forever, but I don’t know how much longer I’m going to stay alive. Maybe I have some things to complete. That’s the way I look at it.”