On Sports • Surgery improves life for former big-league catcher Ben Petrick
Last week, Ben Petrick walked 18 holes of golf for the first time in eight years. 'Played horrible,' the former major league baseball player says. 'It felt so good.'
What felt good was the freedom with which Petrick, 34, moved about the RedTail course, the result of surgery that alleviated symptoms from Parkinson's disease that have been with him in recent years.
During the six-hour surgery at Oregon Health and Science University in November, Dr. Kim Burchiel implanted two electrodes inside Petrick's brain to target the area that controls movement. Then a device was implanted in his chest to transmit signals to the electrodes.
The results were immediate. Petrick - his body locked up 'like a statue' when off medication to hold the Parkinson's at bay - suddenly had much greater control of his body.
'And when the medication kicked in, it was like, 'Wow,' ' he says. 'I could just lay still.'
The simple pleasures of life had eluded the former three-sport standout at Glencoe High for years. In the beginning, everything came so easy. As a senior tailback/safety at Glencoe, he led the Crimson Tide to the state football championship and was the state's offensive player of the year. As a slugging catcher who had signed with Arizona State, the 6-foot, 195-pound Petrick was the state's player of the year.
A $495,000 signing bonus - second-largest in history at the time for a second-round draft pick - induced Petrick to join the Colorado Rockies out of high school. He quickly moved up the farm chain and, in his major-league debut on Sept. 1, 1999, got two hits in a lineup that included Larry Walker, Dante Bichette and Todd Walker. He hit .323 in 62 at-bats that September and was projected as Colorado's catcher of the future.
That fall, while playing in the Arizona instructional league, Petrick was typing on the computer one night.
'I couldn't keep up with my right hand,' he says. 'I thought, 'That's odd.' '
Petrick was 22.
As fall turned into winter, Petrick could sense something was amiss with his system. There were the beginnings of rigidity and slowness of movement.
There was a history of Parkinson's in his family. His maternal grandfather had died from complications from the disease. His father, Vern, was at the same time beginning to experience symptoms from Parkinson's that would cause him to retire early as Glencoe's athletic director.
Petrick, though, couldn't imagine having it at such a young age. That winter, a neurologist examined him and diagnosed it as a benign central tremor. Months later, a movement disorder specialist in Denver diagnosed it as 'Parkinsonism.' Petrick was placed on Requip, a medication to treat the symptoms.
'A disgusting drug,' he says. 'Makes you nauseous and tired. I was taking it three times a day.'
Petrick said nothing about his condition to those outside his family. He just dealt with it privately, doing his best to perform with diminishing body functions.
'I was in denial, trying to pretend it wasn't happening, trying to stay focused on baseball,' he says. 'I didn't tell anybody about it. The Rockies knew about it, but they didn't really know about it.'
Petrick managed to hit .322 in 52 games with Colorado during the 2000 season, but the disease was taking its toll. He spent parts of the 2001 and '02 seasons with the Rockies, then was traded to Detroit early in the 2003 campaign. He hit .225 in 43 games for the Tigers, then was sent to minor-league camp the following spring training.
'I was miserable,' he says. 'I'd have kept playing if I'd stayed in the big leagues - good thing I didn't.'
After 10 at-bats with Triple-A Toledo in April 2004, Petrick was released. After a short stint with the Triple-A Portland Beavers, Petrick retired from pro baseball at age 27.
'I was like, 'Thank goodness. I can finally tell people about what's going on,' ' he says.
Petrick returned to Hillsboro, married longtime girlfriend Kellie and set about tackling the next portion of his life.
In 2005, he tested positive with a California firm for Lyme's Disease, a tick-borne illness caused by a bacteria, and he was featured in a film, 'Under Our Skin,' about people with the malady. Ben and Kellie remain unsure if that is the root of his problems, but are more convinced that he has Parkinson's.
During the next few years, Petrick gave private hitting lessons to youths, took online classes toward a college degree, had a daughter (Makena, now 3) and saw his physical condition get worse. He didn't experience the shakes, as does his father; his symptoms included dyskinesia - involuntary movements of the head and upper body, the way it has affected actor Michael J. Fox.
'I relied heavily on medication to function semi-normally,' he says. 'I was taking 15 pills a day. Usually, I was OK on medication. Off medication, I was basically in a chair.'
Sleep was difficult. He lost 20 pounds. Friends had told him about a surgery that might help. In December 2009, he went to Stanford Medical Center for the 'deep brain stimulation' operation later performed on him much more successfully by Burchiel at OHSU.
After returning home for Christmas, Petrick suffered a series of seizures. Turned out he had a massive infection in the brain. He went to OHSU, where he had fluid drained and spent 2 1/2 weeks in convalescence.
Burchiel - the first surgeon in the U.S. to perform that kind of operation - said a second surgery might work. For a while, Petrick was reluctant. Finally, though, 'I decided it was time to do something about it,' he says.
In November, Petrick was back on the operating table. Days later, after the electrodes were connected, he had a semblance of his life back again.
Now things are better. His balance has improved. He gained back the 20 pounds. He has been able to cut back on his medication. He can exercise again regularly. He can play with his daughter and do more activities with his wife.
'There's such a difference in the stability I have in my day-to-day life,' he says. 'It's amazing what they can do to your brain. I've gotten to where I can do everything maybe 80 percent of normal.'
The main negative of the surgery is that Petrick's speech is slurred.
'Doctors warned us of that,' Kellie says. 'Usually when the device is put in, it can affect speech in a negative way.
'But the tradeoff is so huge. For me, it's a no-brainer. The biggest thing is the dyskinesia is gone.'
Doctors are still tweaking things to improve the effects of the 'subthalamic nucleus,' which controls Petrick's speech patterns.
'We're trying to figure out the right settings, trying to get the best of both worlds, where I can speak and still function,' he says.
'Keeps us strong'
Petrick is keeping busy. This spring, he has helped coach the baseball team at Glencoe. He has been able to get into the batting cage and hit with the players.
'That feels good,' he says.
With author Scott Brown, he is in the midst of writing two books - one an autobiography, the other a faith-based book about Christian athletes - that he hopes will be completed by the end of summer. Proceeds will go to Parkinson's research. He also writes a blog on a website(faithinthegame.tumblr.com) in which he exchanges stories with athletes about how Christian faith relates to their lives.
Kellie is in her third year working half-time teaching third grade at Lenox Elementary. Her support has been immeasurable. 'She's my rock,' he says.
The Petricks are members of Harvest Community Church.
'I've grown so much in myself and with my faith through all of this,' he says. 'It's been a stabilizer. It's something that keeps us strong and keeps us working together as a unit. I've taken an important step toward having a relationship with Christ.'
The Petricks reside on what Ben calls 'Petrick Lane,' a row of houses off of Cornelius Pass Road. His parents, Vern and Marci, brother Rian and sister Mari Lyn Stewart all live on the same street.
Ben does not pretend life is easy. He knows he will continue to face challenges with his health in the future.
'I know it's not going away, but where I am now is a nice break from the awful symptoms I experienced (over the previous) three or four years,' he says. 'I was blessed to have pretty significant athletic skills, and I'll never be like that again. It's disappointing, but I feel fortunate. I focus on the positive. It's nice to be at least a smidgeon of my old self.'
Petrick supports the foundations of Fox and Brian Grant, the former Trail Blazer who has Parkinson's. Ben has courage, and he has hope.
'There's no cure,' he says, 'but (research) is progressing. Hopefully, (the surgery) will help me through the next 10 to 15 years, and then we'll see what science comes up with.'
For now, he'll be happy to hack around the golf course, one able step at a time.