Hess on the mend after cancer treatment

Minors deal with Rays 'a breath of fresh air in a pretty stressful time'

February 4th, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG -- A few days after last season ended, David Hess decided to go for a run. He finished his workout “very, very out of breath,” a feeling he’d been experiencing after exercising. He chalked it up to COVID-19; maybe he’d had it and didn’t know, and it was affecting him this way. Then he coughed up blood in the shower the next morning.

Hess was worried. He said his wife, Devin, was “freaking out.” Their families were concerned. So the 28-year-old pitcher went to the emergency room for a battery of tests that revealed a cantaloupe-sized tumor pressing on his heart and lungs. An oncologist told Hess that the rare form of cancer, a germ cell tumor, had probably been growing in his chest for about two years, perhaps even longer.

“They pretty much said that that run could have and should have killed me,” Hess said during a Zoom call. “Because the pressure it was putting on my heart and my lungs … it was basically pressing on everything and preventing blood flow to go to my heart the way it was supposed to and it blocked off my windpipe. So it was pretty much [like] I was working at 10 percent capacity of what somebody should be.”

Three and a half months later, Hess is just about out of the woods. There’s still a spot that doctors will monitor, but they told Hess he should be able to fight it off. He’ll report to Spring Training with the Rays later this month -- either as a non-roster invitee at big league camp, or at Minor League camp.

Hess probably won’t pitch in games for a few months, he acknowledged, but he’s back in the baseball grind already. Less than a week after being cleared, Hess went to work with a physical therapist to strengthen his throwing shoulder and start getting his body ready to pitch. So far, he said, it’s going “better than I expected.” And far better than anyone might have hoped a few months ago.

When Hess and Devin received the news, they were obviously shocked. If a cantaloupe-sized tumor had been growing in his chest for two years, how had he been pitching? But the more they thought about it, the more sense it made.

“I really hadn't been feeling good since the All-Star break, pretty much,” said Hess, a former Oriole who spent most of last season with Triple-A Durham in the Rays’ system. “When we started kind of piecing some stuff together, we were like, 'You know, I really think that this started affecting me majorly last year, but could have even been affecting me over the last two years.'”

Hess spent a few nights at Greenville Memorial Hospital in South Carolina. A few days later, he began chemotherapy treatments that came in three three-week cycles. The first week, he spent five six-hour days with a catheter injecting fluid into his arms. Eventually, he had a port put into his chest.

On Jan. 27, Hess’ doctor texted him two pictures: positron emission tomography (PET) scans of his chest, one before the treatment and one after. In the first picture, Hess said, the tumor was a “giant blue mass that lit up.” In the second photo, there was still a glowing blue mass. Unsure what they were looking at, Hess and Devin braced themselves for the worst.

But during their appointment on Jan. 28, the first thing the oncologist asked Hess was, “You ready to get back to work?” While the Hess family had been worrying, their doctor had been thrilled. The second picture brought good news, after all.

“I didn't realize it was my heart. My heart had such little blood flow in the first [picture] that it didn't even show up on the PET scan properly,” Hess said. “I'm looking at this thinking that I still have this giant mass in my chest, and so me and my wife go through that whole day thinking that we're going to get bad news, I'm going to have to either do radiation, some more chemo, surgery -- we weren't exactly sure. And it turns out that we were completely wrong.

“For most of the morning, it was pretty emotional just to know that after everything that had kind of gone on, and just to have that behind us and be able to kind of turn the page to get back to where we're at right now, the process of revving back up and getting ready for baseball.”

Fortunately, Hess doesn’t have to add finding a job to his preseason preparation.

He spent about six weeks with Miami last year, but Tampa Bay brought him back on a Minor League deal and re-signed him for next season. That helped make sure he was covered from an insurance standpoint, he said, adding that the Rays were “as incredible as a team could be” during his treatment. Everyone from president of baseball operations Erik Neander to the training staff checked in, making it clear baseball was a secondary concern to his health.

“The staff is great. The players are great. The organization and the culture they've created is incredible. And so that showed up, as you would expect, in all this as well,” Hess said. “It was a no-brainer to re-sign and come back to a place that just has been so good to me and so many others.”

Hess credited his wife and family for providing “absolutely incredible” support. He said he was humbled by all the friends, former teammates and coaches and fans who reached out along the way. They all found some peace of mind knowing the Rays were waiting for him when he was back at full strength.

“For them to give that opportunity to get back out on the field whenever everything was cleared up, like I said, that was an incredible relief,” Hess said. “Not just to me, but I know my family, especially my wife -- it was just a breath of fresh air in a pretty stressful time.”

Hess was open about his entire journey, posting on social media about his diagnosis, treatment and support system. It was a way for Hess to keep his friends in baseball updated, display the faith that guides his life and, he said, display the positive attitude he maintained throughout a trying time.

“My mindset from the beginning was that this is a very difficult situation, but trusting that God's going to use this as something that's going to be something that's inspirational to other people,” Hess said. “I was around a lot of people in the rooms when I was getting treatment that were in a lot worse situations than I was. 

“So more than anything, I think I just wanted to show that even in the bad times, when things are looking pretty grim and it's not always the smoothest-sailing times, that there's goodness that can come out of that.”