By Shannon Drayer
Last Tuesday, Mariners pitching prospect Anthony Vasquez woke up without peripheral vision in his right eye.
At first he thought it was just a little bit of grogginess but then remembered a strange episode with vertigo he had two weeks before. The vision cleared up by that evening but when he woke up the next morning he started to feel a headache coming on.
It was a throw day for Vasquez, who was rehabbing a shoulder injury at the Mariners’ spring training complex in Peoria, Ariz., so he headed to the field hoping it would clear up and that he could get his work done. As he went through his warmup routine the headache intensified. He told the trainer he thought that he would not be able to throw that day. He was somewhat concerned and said he thought it would be a good idea if he saw the doctor.
He was taken that afternoon to see Dr. Robert Luberto, the team doctor in Arizona. Dr Luberto was able to get him in for an MRI that afternoon because an appointment had been canceled. Less than 36 hours later Vasquez would undergo brain surgery.
“I give a lot of credit to Dr. Luberto for getting me in right away,” said Vasquez, who was riding with his father to his home in San Antonio Monday afternoon. “‘You definitely have a little mass, a lesion in there,’ he told me. ‘Something, and we need to take a further look at it.'”
Vasquez was told to take his MRI to neurology where doctors would further evaluate it. After a couple of hours he was taken into a room and told that he was most likely looking at a tumor or arterial-venous malformation, otherwise known as an AVM. He would need surgery the next morning.
“I didn’t know what to think,” he said of his reaction to the news. “In a sense I was just kind of glad that they figured out what it was because the last few days it had progressively gotten worse a little bit. The last thing I wanted to hear was we don’t know where we are here, we are going to do a few more tests the next few days and just kind of slowly continue with this process if my head was going to hurt. I was pretty sure something was going on.”
Anthony Vasquez made seven starts for the Mariners in 2011. (AP)
The word brain tumor did not shake him even though he knew something was not right by the reaction of the doctor when he walked into the room.
“Fortunately, with my nature and personality and emotions I was able to keep pretty calm,” he said. “When the doctor came back he was kind of like stuttering, trying to be patient and calm and say, ‘Hey, you have a tumor.’ I just kind of looked at him and, ‘Hey, it’s OK, you can tell me. (Laughs) I’m not going to get upset, it is what it is.’
“I know he was trying to be professional about it and not over-dramatize it or say it in a way that might scare me.”
“He is a kid of great faith,” said Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik, who has kept in constant contact with the family through this ordeal. “Before the surgery he told his father that he was of complete peace of mind. ‘It’s not in my control. If anything happens I will go see Jesus.'”
“I figured whatever was happening was happening for a reason and regardless if it was going to be good, bad or indifferent, I was going to be taken care of by the Lord one way or another,” Vasquez said Monday. “Go ahead, tell me (the news), it’s OK. People go through this stuff, it happens all the time to different people. I am not too worried about it, just let me know and we will see where we go from there. I was like, (laughs again) I’ve lived a good life already, if it is my time to go it is my time to go. Let me know. You guys just do what you have to do.
“I know that they were going to go about it the best way they could and there’s nothing I could do about it. Freaking out and jumping to crazy conclusions isn’t going to help. Jumping on the phone calling everybody and making a big deal about it isn’t going to help. I knew they were doing every thing they could do. I was kind of comforted by all of that.”
Vasquez was facing surgery for an AVM. An AVM is an abnormal connection between veins and arteries that Vasquez most likely had been living with for his entire life. Most people live with it symptom-free but for others the pressure and damage to blood vessel tissue can allow to a leak to surrounding tissues, which reduces blood flow to the brain. For others, a rupture can occur, which can lead to stroke or even death.
Vasquez was given a crash course in AVM, where he learned about the tangle of arteries and veins and the danger of the pressure that can build.
“At any time it can bust, and there is internal bleeding and that is when people just roll over and die,” he told me.
He learned even more after the surgery.
“I guess my situation ended up being even worse,” he said. “By the time the surgery was done a lot more information came out and it ended up a lot worse than they thought. It was even a more of a miraculous ordeal than just having a AVM removed, I guess.”
In order to better map the AVM and determine the right and least invasive means of treatment, the first part of Vasquez’s surgery was to undergo an angiogram. The angiogram revealed there was only one course of action as the AVM had burst.
“My AVM had actually been ruptured already for a day or two, which should have killed me,” Vasquez said. “I should have been dead for the last couple of days.”
Anthony’s father, Rudy, had flown in from San Antonio and was there for the surgery. He was the first to learn this news.
“The surgeon came in after the surgery and after he explained everything I asked, ‘Well, why isn’t he dead?’ And he just put his hands up and said, ‘Jesus,'” Rudy Vasquez said.
“His exact words: ‘He dodged the silver bullet, Mr. Vasquez. He dodged the silver bullet.’ Unbelievable,” Rudy Vasquez said.
With his faith being strong, Anthony has had little trouble putting this in perspective.
“I am thankful to be alive, but also obviously the Lord does a lot of crazy things so that doesn’t surprise me a bit that sometimes people are fortunate enough that he helps them out, and other times … he is always with us,” he said. “He gave me an extra chance, I guess. There is no doubt the Lord was involved in this one. Based on all of their [the doctors’] perspectives and even scientific understanding, they are just … [can’t believe it].”
“If anything, if I were alive they would expect significant damage to my brain, paralysis,” he continued. “A ruptured artery in your head usually causes significant damage, so for them to say that, I guess it all goes back to my faith. It’s a good thing I have it because I felt comfortable the whole time. Confident, and now that something like this happened it just gives me that much more validation that God can do great things, for sure.”
Anthony said that the first few days after surgery were a bit rough as he was somewhat foggy, but since he has been able to get up a bit more that has cleared up. Incredibly, he expects to be ready for spring training in February.
“I can’t thank them enough for what they did,” he said. The doctors, the nurses, obviously they did a wonderful job, too, at what they are good at. They told me just don’t do anything for 4-6 weeks and after you should be good to go. Do anything you want.”
Rudy Vasquez, who is a scout in the Angels organization, is thankful to have had the support of the organization.
“Jack Zduriencik, Tom McNamara, Tommy Allison, who lives in Phoenix and was at the hospital the whole day of the surgery – it was not just, ‘Hi, how are you doing? See you later’ – he was there the whole day,” Rudy said. “Greg Whitworth, the scout who drafted him, had been calling and calling. My boss with the Angels, Ric Wilson, who lives in the area, was there the whole day of the surgery, too.
“The Mariner family stepped up and it means so much to my wife and I. Lord willing, you will see him in spring training. He is anxious to get out there and restart his career.”
Zduriencik is looking forward to that, too, especially after remembering first hearing the news that one of his players would undergo emergency brain surgery.
“The first thing you think of is the the kid and the family,” Zduriencik said. “It puts everything in perspective. It is a game, but you are talking about a family and everything they go through, and a kid’s life. You sit down and pray for them. It is the reality of just how fragile life is. It makes you stop and realize how grateful we are.”
The Vasquez family and Mariner family have plenty to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.