A long shot touches home

Baseball: When Hammond slugger Brian Brewer mysteriously fell into a coma, the worst was feared. Now he is completing his long recovery from viral encephalitis on the diamond.

May 01, 2001|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | By Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

All night, they listened to the sound of the heart monitor.

They listened to the breathing machine, hooked up to their 17-year-old son, and they listened to the frustrating silence of the hospital. Mostly, they listened to the sound of their own prayers.

Megan and John Brewer didn't know what was wrong with Brian, but then, neither did the doctors. That afternoon, without a single prior symptom, he had suffered a violent seizure and slipped into a coma. Tests were being done, questions were being asked, but still nothing. You should be aware, a doctor told them, that there is a very real possibility Brian might die.

That Wednesday morning in October - that afternoon even - the idea would have seemed absurd. Brian Brewer, a 6-foot-2, thick-muscled kid with a prominent jaw and an even more prominent baseball swing, was a picture of pristine health. He didn't drink, didn't smoke, didn't really do much but eat, breathe and sleep the game of baseball. As a junior at Hammond High, Brian had blossomed into one of the Baltimore area's best players; his 90-mph fastball was almost as vicious as his compact, powerful swing, which helped him tie a public school state record for the most home runs in a season with 13.

Yet there the Brewers were, sitting in a hospital room, juggling faith, anger and fear. Brian had given up football that fall to avoid injury and to play travel baseball with the Mid-Atlantic Rookies, a group of high school-age all-stars from Maryland and Pennsylvania. The team, which played weekend tournaments up and down the East Coast, was scheduled to head to Raleigh, N.C., in a few days. Brian, who had the strongest arm on the team, was hoping to catch the eye of a college scout and earn a scholarship.

But that afternoon, on Oct. 5, he had gone to work as he usually did each day after school, helping stack boxes at a liquor store in Laurel. It was there, hard at work in the dark basement of the store, he collapsed and had to be carried out on a stretcher.

"You can use words like nightmare and horrendous, but there's nothing to describe it," says Megan Brewer. "The doctors came to us and said, `We have no idea what this is. We have no idea why he's sick.' At that point, you start pulling for a miracle."

Life and death

John Brewer got the call at work shortly after Brian collapsed, and raced to Laurel Regional Hospital.

"In the emergency room, Brian was convulsing and didn't have any idea where he was," John says. "The doctors said to me, `The only way to stop him from convulsing is to give him some paralysis drugs. But we need your permission, because once we give him this, he'll no longer be able to breathe on his own.' "

Megan Brewer arrived in a blur shortly afterward, and the doctors, searching for answers, grilled both parents: Did he feel sick? Was he tired? Did have a stiff neck? A headache? Anything?

"I told them, no, no and no, he had nothing like that," Megan Brewer says.

He was moved from Laurel to the University of Maryland Medical Center, where doctors told the Brewers they had to be open to all the possibilities. At the time, Brian had all the symptoms of a drug overdose.

"We said, `It can't be that,' " Megan says. " `You don't understand. He's an athlete, he doesn't do any of that. Ask his friends, ask his teachers. They'll all tell you the same thing.' "

If it's not drugs, there's a good chance it's bacterial meningitis, the doctors said. "They told us, if that's the case, then he's going to die, because he's too far gone," Megan says.

That night, while they braced for the worst and prayed for the best, Megan Brewer held onto her son despite the tube in his throat, the machines that helped him breathe and the thought that he might have a deadly infectious disease.

"The nurses didn't want to go in the room with him, because they all thought he might be contagious," Megan says. "I said to myself, `If he's dying, then I'm dying ... but I'm not leaving him.' "

Living day to day

At school, and in the homes of Brian's friends and teammates, word spread. Mike Chroniger, Brian's travel team baseball coach, drove all night from Pennsylvania to be by his side. Brian's friends prayed in the waiting room, then held his hand at his bedside.

"I was really scared for him," says Jason Maxey, Brian's teammate and close friend. "It was pretty hard to sleep knowing what he was going through. I prayed for him, but we really didn't know what was going to happen next."

It all seemed so random to everyone, unfair even. Brian was the most easygoing, easily likable kid they knew. His teammates constantly were awed by his storytelling skills, the way he poked fun at himself and the way he could be so laid-back off the field, so focused on it.

"Brian's such a tough guy, but he's kind," says Pat Fields, Hammond's second baseman and one of Brian's closest friends. "He's always got a story, and he just loves life. He's more like a brother than a teammate to all of us."

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