Stroke Doesn't Knock out This Champion

Editor's note: Doug Hennes, vice president for university and government relations, submitted this guest column to The Scroll.

Two weeks ago Wednesday, Erik Olson pitched five innings for the St. Thomas baseball team in a 5-0 win over St. Mary’s University, keeping the Tommies in first place in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

Eight days later, Olson was in United Hospitals in St. Paul, undergoing a series of tests for what were determined to be blood clots in his right index finger and his brain, and suffering a mild stroke in the process.

Thursday morning, Olson sat in the stands of a baseball field in Oshkosh, Wis., watching two teams play for the right to advance in the NCAA Division III Midwest tournament and square off against his Tommies that evening.

How does one go from being a pitcher on a nationally ranked baseball team to a stroke victim to a spectator – all in just 16 short days? It has been mystifying to Olson, who has maintained a rather calm and reflective demeanor through it all.

bball.jpgThe senior Spanish and education major from West DePere, Wis., has been a Tommie pitcher for four years, appearing in 47 games, racking up a 15-8 record and 3.41 ERA and beating eight MIAC teams during his career. Last month, he noticed the tip of the index finger on his throwing hand was discolored, and it would turn white when it was cold.

Bob Broxterman, the team’s athletic trainer, suggested that Olson have the finger checked at Student Health Services, and Olson saw Dr. Marilee Votel-Kvaal. She ran blood tests, was puzzled by what she saw and recommended he seek further tests. He checked into United on May 7, the day before the MIAC playoff tournament. More tests were run, including an ultrasound and an angiogram. It appeared he had a blood clot in that index finger and may have had clots in two other fingers.

Olson recalled that as he was coming out of sedation from one of the tests, “my whole right side went numb.” He thought it might have been a reaction from being under sedation, “but when I took a drink of water, I could taste it only on the left side of my mouth. It was like there was a wall running down the middle of my mouth, and I couldn’t feel anything on the right side.”

Physicians ultimately determined Olson had a brain clot and had suffered a mild stroke. He began to improve almost immediately and recovered all of the feeling on his right side. He underwent more tests, including a MRI on his head and neck, and was put on blood-thinning medication. He finally was released from the hospital on Tuesday – five days after he was admitted, two days after the MIAC tournament had ended and a day before the NCAA tournament was to begin.

So what’s a disabled pitcher to do? He goes to Oshkosh, that’s what – to be with his team, to serve as a cheerleader and to regain his strength. He’s still a little tired, but he’s feeling better every day.

“I was scared,” he said of his medical ordeal, “and it also hurt that I wasn’t there for the team. I have been part of this for four years, and I’m thinking we have a shot in the playoffs to get to the World Series (next week in Appleton, Wis.). When they told me that I would not be able to play the rest of the season, it was hard. But I also realize there’s more to life than baseball.”

Such as graduation. Such as student teaching next fall at Eagan High School and Highland Catholic Elementary School. Such as finding a job as a Spanish teacher in a K-12 school.

And his pitching days may not be over, either. Health permitting, he’ll be on the mound this summer for the Miesville Mudhens, an amateur team coached by Chris Olean ’99, the Tommies’ pitching coach.

Olson hasn’t lost one important thing – his sense of humor. He told how he had been tossing a baseball around his hospital room just to stay in shape. Actually, it was a foam ball.

“You know, to get the nurses’ attention,” he said, with a wink and a hint of a smile.