After Facing Mortality, Turk Back In Swing Of Things

7/25/2007 – Daily News Record

Appalachian’s Stewart Back In His Comfort Zone: Baseball Written By Matthew Stoss Daily News Record HARRISONBURG — The question posed to Brett Stewart last February wasn’t one he expected to hear at 23 years old. Stewart – now a Harrisonburg Turks infielder – sat in a Charlotte hospital room at 2 a.m. He had been rushed there from Appalachian State in Boone, N.C., because of an irregular heartbeat later diagnosed as Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. A nurse walked in after his parents and Chris Pollard, his baseball coach at ASU, returned to their hotel. It was the night before a four-hour procedure that would save Stewart’s heart. The nurse asked if he had a will. "That was the night it really hit me," Stewart said. "I didn’t really know what to say." Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome is a congenital heart disease that Stewart said involves an irregular heartbeat caused by an extra electrical impulse in the heart. The American Heart Association Web site said the heart uses one electrical signal to beat properly. To correct it, Stewart said he was partially anesthetized for a catheter ablation, which destroyed the abnormal tissue causing the problem. "It’s totally gone," Stewart said. "I was out for two months. Ever since I got back into [baseball], it hasn’t bothered me since." Stewart was forced to miss his first season at Appalachian State. He transferred from Tallahassee Community College last fall and is now the starting third baseman for the second-place Turks. Last week, he was named the Valley Baseball League Player of the Week "He’s just a hard worker," Turks owner/coach Bob Wease said. "And working hard goes a long way with me. [Former Turks] David Eckstein and Juan Pierre made themselves into what they are today. I love kids who are hard workers." The Niceville, Fla., native, who Wease said arrives at the stadium more than an hour before most players for extra batting practice, hit .375 with four RBIs and four runs scored two weeks ago to earn the VBL’s Player of the Week honor. Three weeks ago, he went 6-for-10 with a home run and six RBIs. But Wease admitted to being apprehensive about Stewart given the recent heart problem. "At the start of the season, I was nervous about even playing him," he said. "The last thing I ever wanted was a kid on my baseball field to have a problem with his health." Stewart, who will be a junior at ASU this fall, is hitting .254 for the Turks – the fifth-highest average on the team – with one home run and 17 RBIs in the wooden-bat league. After the heart procedure, Stewart didn’t play baseball for two months, but he still traveled with the team when possible, even driving down to Florida State on his own. "We knew he was going to be healthy come about April," Pollard said by phone from ASU. "I just didn’t want to rush him back. I wanted to get him some summer ball to get him ready for this fall." Pollard knew Wease from his two years playing in the VBL in the early ’90s, and the relationship helped get Stewart – and fellow Mountaineer Andrew Franco – on the Turks’ roster this season, even with the possibility that Stewart wouldn’t be ready to play. "Mr. Wease was gracious enough to tell him to come back anyway," Pollard said. Franco and Stewart live together in Harrisonburg with Franco’s mother and step-father, Broadway High School football coach Frank Sorrells, who moved back to the Valley last year after a long coaching career in Florida. On the Turks’ day off Wednesday, Stewart was helping paint the Sorrells’ deck. "I guess it’s part of the package with living here was painting the house," Stewart said, laughing. "That wasn’t in the initial contract." Stewart started his college baseball career at Okaloosa-Walton Community College in Niceville, Fla., where his father, Bruce, is the men’s basketball coach. Brett tried to transfer after one semester to Tallahassee but redshirted because he couldn’t get a release. The 6-foot, 205-pounder played as a redshirt sophomore at Tallahassee, where he was a second-team All-Panhandle Conference selection after hitting .320 with two home runs and 17 RBIs. He transferred to Appalachian State as a junior. Two weeks before the season opener at Gardner-Webb, Stewart said his chest felt tight after running sprints. That night, he took his pulse and noticed he’d have two normal heartbeats, and then it’d skip. He also blacked out twice. Stewart went to ASU health center the following morning, where doctors called an ambulance. "After conditioning, I felt like my heart was racing more than it should," said Stewart, whose heart rate at one point was 200 beats per minute. "I kept waking up and blacking out. I knew something wasn’t right." The local Boone hospital transferred Stewart to the Carolinas Medical Center’s cardiac unit in Charlotte, where he was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome and atrial fibrillation. Pollard – two weeks before the season opener – followed the ambulance on the 2-hour, 20-minute drive from Boone to Charlotte. He stayed for three days. "For a coach to actually do that – to stay the night… A lot of people say they would do it; he actually did do that," Stewart said. "It meant a lot. He was the only person I had there with me till my parents got me. "He dropped everything and went with me. I’m kind of speechless about that." Stewart said his parents arrived at around 2 a.m. that day after driving from Florida. According to a press release sent from Okaloosa-Walton, there was a 10 percent chance Stewart wouldn’t survive the operation, but a 99 percent chance the condition would kill him if left untreated. "There was absolutely doubt," Pollard said. "There was a question of whether it would work. "… It was a wonderful experience, though – but only because it turned out wonderful." Since being medically cleared for baseball (his first game back was the Turks’ season opener in early June) Stewart, who was granted a medical redshirt, said the return wasn’t that bad, and that he’s had no scares or relapses since the procedure. "It wasn’t hard getting back into playing every day," he said. "It actually just felt good to be on the field every day. I got tired of watching." Pollard said Stewart will compete for a spot at first base in the fall, and Wease said he’s already invited Stewart back for next season. "He’s got a lot of heart," Wease said.