First pitch brings teenager back to mound
Survived rare heart arrhythmia after line drive struck chest
HOUSTON -- Jake Johnson was careful to position his 14-year-old brother Walker's index finger inside the glove. Walker forgot his at home on the way to Minute Maid Park, so the 16-year-old big brother generously let him use his, carefully pointing to the sweat stain where his index finger customarily is positioned.
"Put it there," Jake said. "Better not mess up my glove."
"This is really about to happen," Walker replied in a daze.
A few minutes later, Walker Johnson returned to the mound on his 14th birthday, tossing the first pitch of Monday night's Astros-Rockies game to Jake Marisnick. He celebrated an occasion most cardiologists are surprised he lived to see. The last time he toed the rubber, he almost died.
The closer for the Houston Warriors, Walker entered his team's March 29 game with a 2-1 lead. With runners on base and a 2-2 count on the hitter at the plate, he threw a changeup. The hitter hammered it right back to the mound, striking Walker in the chest.
He turned and staggered for a few steps.
"Then his knees turned," his father, Carey, recalled. "As soon as I saw him start to go down, I knew it was serious."
Carey and family friend Jack Berry, who also had a son on Walker's team, raced to the mound. Umpires, all trained in CPR, soon followed. Berry put his ear to Walker's chest.
He had no heartbeat. Nor was he breathing. Walker's eyes rolled to the back of his head and his tongue was hanging from his mouth.
"He was gone," Carey said.
About 30 or 45 seconds later, with ambulances en route and the umpires ready to start CPR, Walker came back. His eyes rolled back and he took a breath. He even stood up, walking himself to the ambulance and politely asking the paramedics if he could lay on a stretcher.
Paramedics ran an EKG on site and transported Walker to the local hospital. Within an hour, doctors determined he needed to be moved to Texas Children's Hospital, where cardiologists lined his doorway to meet him.
"I've never met someone this has happened to," one told him.
"This" was commotio cordis, a heart arrhythmia caused by a blow to the chest. The ball hit Walker between heartbeats and just below the left ventricle. Few, if any, survive the trauma and almost all need a defibrillator to be revived.
He spent six days in the hospital, where doctors performed an ultrasound and drew blood to determine his heart was badly bruised. Currently, he's on blood pressure medication to heal the heart and beta blockers to control adrenaline, causing great fatigue.
"All he does is sleep," Jake joked.
"Did an interview this morning," Walker said when asked how he celebrated his birthday. "Then ate Chick-fil-A. Then slept till 4. Now I'm here."
The interviews are welcome to Walker. He wants to be famous. Every kid wants to be a superstar football or baseball player, he says, and he admits he wouldn't mind that track.
More than that, though, he wants to be known for what happened to him and wants his future to hold memories of it.
His mother, Christy, has started a GoFundMe page titled "Walker's Heart Warriors," which to date has raised nearly $8,000. The goal is to raise enough money to supply baseball fields with defibrillators, which are around $1,400. The Johnsons have received a grant to take off $500 for every unit they buy.
Twenty minutes before he took the mound, and with the glove now properly fitted, Jake and Walker tossed a baseball. Christy just found out today that Walker had been sneaking out to play catch, although he's under strict orders to take it easy.
She had to chide him -- it's a mother's duty. But it won't last long.
"He needs to get back out there," Christy said. "Can't be afraid."