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|| News Item: Posted 2006-09-05

Back to Work
Seattle Times staff photographer Dean Rutz returns from serious injury

By Dean Rutz, The Seattle Times

Photo by Jennifer Buchanan / Everett Herald

Photo by Jennifer Buchanan / Everett Herald

Dean Rutz at a recent Snohomish vs. Cascade high school football game on September 1, 2006.
This is not the place I wanted to be.

Back to work just a few days, and the pool camera for the funeral of Joselito Barber, a Seattle Police officer killed while on duty in the collision of his cruiser and another vehicle just a few days prior.

Me, in a cemetery. The ironies were not lost on me.

Walking to the gravesite I passed a memorial for World War II dead. The monument had inscribed in it a drawing based on Joe Rosenthal's famous photo - and Rosenthal had just died the night before.

And then there was before me the grieving family and the casket of a young man who died from massive trauma. I felt a profound sadness watching the parents and girlfriend beside the casket.

Could have been me, I thought.

I haven't been too maudlin too many times since my accident April 20 of this year. But this was definitely one of those times.

It is, of course, a miracle that I'm here to write a single word about my experience the past few months. I had a sense that might be true when Bert first asked me to write about being hit in the head by a baseball and suffering a massive trauma as a result of it. But I wrote about that very early on in the experience, and each week that followed it seemed to bring another revelation.

The biggest one was that I was one lucky sonofabitch.

I liken it to a switch. One moment I was talking to Ferndale High School athlete Jake Locker. And just like that came the crush of the baseball against my head.

One moment I was listening. The next my entire being was consumed by the incredible rush of painful sensation. Light went to dark in the flick of a switch.

It was loud. When the ball that fractured my skull hit me the sound and the pain were equal, and they consumed me. I have never experienced anything like it before, and hope never to again. It closed my eyes. I was standing, but it might just as well have been an out of body experience. I knew everything that was happening to me, but the agony I felt was so numbing, and the shock so overwhelming, that my body didn't know what to do. I don't know how long that went on. But as awareness set in, so too did the urgency for me to do something. I could only grasp that I needed to get to the ground. I knew I wouldn't be vertical very much longer.

My body knew it too. And I collapsed to the ground, partially wrapped in the arms of a baseball scout.

They tell me I convulsed on the ground for about a minute. I don't remember that.

But I remember being on the ground, and seeing all the people standing above me. And I was embarrassed for being in that situation.

I wasn't anywhere I wasn't supposed to be. I was off the field of play at the high school game between Ferndale and Anacortes, there to do a story on Locker, the University of Washington's quarterback of the future. I was well off the field and behind a fence, standing with Locker and his father and maybe a half dozen other people when the ball flew in and struck me in the right temple. It was terrible luck that I was struck in the weakest place in my skull.

To this day people ask me if I've heard from Locker, or from the kid from Anacortes High School who threw the ball that hit me.

No I haven't, but that shouldn't surprise anyone.

I was lying on the ground and awake. I was stunned, but alert enough to be making bad jokes. An ambulance was called, but I could still tell the reporter where my car was parked, where my gear was, and hand him my keys. It appeared to everybody that I would be just fine.

The reporter, John Boyle, called the picture desk back in Seattle to tell them I'd been hit by a baseball, but that I was okay. I was awake, talking, and headed to the hospital as a precaution. A bit of bad luck the editors thought as they huddled. But there was no sense of urgency.

Not yet anyway. That would of course change. Barry Fitzsimmons, just days into his new job as director of photography, was about to experience his first crisis.


No one on the baseball field had any idea of what was to come - least of all me. But things changed moments after I was loaded into the ambulance.

It's difficult to describe the sensation I first felt being hit by the baseball. Your entire body locks up and is consumed by paralysis and pain. Nothing existed other than that for several moments.

It's similarly difficult to describe the sensation that came over me in the ambulance. At this point medically a hematoma had formed in my brain. I didn't know it of course, but I knew something was terribly wrong. I suddenly began losing my sight, and I was feeling something was about to overtake me.

I told the paramedics "we need to go." And then my body began trembling uncontrollably.

I thought I must be in shock. But the trembling and cold I felt was so foreign that I tried to roll to my left side, strapped to the gurney, and grasp the hand of the paramedic with massive hands named Jerry. I reached for him because I didn't know what else to do. I was fading.

And then I was gone. I lost consciousness and would not regain it for five hours.

Though not conscious, I was fighting with the paramedics Jerry would tell me two days later. As the ambulance sped down Interstate 5 on the 15-minute ride from Ferndale to Bellingham, I was seizing. The most violent of those seizures lasted three minutes. I fought with Jerry so much that he felt he had no choice but to fill me with enough sedative "to drop a horse."

Whether that stopped my breathing, or whether it was the trauma and seizure, I don't really know. But I did in fact stop breathing. And now the paramedics had a new problem.

"There wasn't any oxygen getting to your brain," Jerry would say later. A decision was made to pull over on the freeway and intubate me. That single decision both saved my life and saved my person from likely debilitating brain damage.

Photo by Karen Ducey / Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Photo by Karen Ducey / Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Dean Rutz during his first night in the hospital.
Stable but swelling on the right side of my face, doctors at St. Joseph's Hospital quickly performed a CT scan to see how bad the damage was. It was about that time that longtime friend and Seattle Times columnist Ron Judd showed up at the hospital. Ron lives in Bellingham and was asked by the picture desk to check up on me.

The doctors were arguing, Ron said later. The radiologist was certain the artery in my brain had been severed in which case I was dead unless surgery was immediately performed.

The neurosurgeon disagreed. Dye was injected into my veins and I was sent back to have another CT scan done.

The hospital called the picture desk that at the time only knew that I'd suffered a nasty knock on the head.

The hospital told Barry I was no longer able to make medical decisions for myself, and that a next of kin needed to be contacted immediately.

Imagine that for your first week on the job!

Barry said he went running out of his office and downstairs to human resources to find my parents' contact information. Word quickly spread through the newsroom that something had gone wrong.

"You should have seen the shock and concern that fell over the newsroom," copy editor Laura Gordon would later email me. I've heard from so many people that they immediately began praying that I would survive.

Things got worse for Barry when HR realized the information I'd given them regarding my parents was outdated. They had since moved and there was no forwarding information available. Managing Editor David Boardman huddled his investigative reporting team together and instructed them to find my parents. It didn't take them long.

About that time, Times staff photographer Rod Mar had found my girlfriend, Karen Ducey, a staff photographer for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. She was on a ferry headed out of the city. Rod calmly explained my situation, but said she needed to start heading north to Bellingham quickly. He and online editor Kari Shaw were preparing to do the same.

I remember waking up just about the time that Karen arrived at St. Joe's. I remember opening my eyes and seeing my neurosurgeon left, and Ron Judd to the right. But I couldn't stay conscious, and I faded away.

I recall now my name being called, and the sound of beeping. I tried to open my eyes again, but I was so weak I couldn't stay awake, and I fell unconscious again.

This happened two or three times before awareness set in, and I recognized my name being called. And that the sounds I heard were alarms on the machines I was hooked up to.

Awareness gave way to understanding. The alarms were because each time I faded away I wasn't breathing anymore. I became aware I was in trouble. And I became aware that now was the time to wake up and fight.

The room was crowded. And I was strapped to the hospital bed, unable to move. The tube in my throat was crushing my windpipe, and the fluid that was collecting there I couldn't swallow. I began to panic. The neurosurgeon, Dr. Michael Lawrence, asked if I wanted the tube removed. I nodded yes.

Ron left the room at that moment to speak with Karen privately in the hallway. "You don't want to see this," he told her.

The doctor told me to take a big breath and push the tube out. But the fluid prevented me from getting a deep breath, and I began vomiting into my tubes. I was vomiting faster than they could suction it out, and I could no longer breath through my mouth. Panic set in again, and I began to breath through my nose.

Dr. Lawrence was quite at ease however. "Somebody's been eating Chinese," he said as he suctioned out my throat.

Well, as a matter of fact, I had. A weird observation I thought, but it took my mind off my predicament for a moment.

I inhaled hard one last time, and the full tube came out of my throat for good.

Ron and Karen came back into the room. Rod and Kari came a short while later.

I had only been conscious a short time, but I didn't know how long I'd been out. I'd assumed not long. I thought I was probably just fine.

A profound sadness came over me as I lay there looking into the eyes of my friends, and seeing fear there.

I was obviously not okay. And I could not bear to see the people I love suffer like that.

Photo by Karen Ducey / Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Photo by Karen Ducey / Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Dean Rutz at home with his nurses: Sandy, Dillon, and Tucker.
It was the same sadness I felt months later covering that policeman's funeral. His grieving family and friends reminded me of how I felt lying helplessly in that bed.

Still, they all put up a brave front. But I could tell.

A few hours later Rod would send a very personal thought to my pager. Reading it moved me to tears because I realized people were saying things they needed to say - just in case I didn't make it through the night.

I still think about those things. And they still move me.

Four days later I was released from St. Joe's. My neurosurgeon was very upbeat. No driving for two weeks he said.

Two weeks? Seriously?

Two days released from the hospital it became apparent to everyone that nothing would be resolved in two weeks.

I could barely walk. I was in bed up to 16 hours each day, but couldn't sleep because each time I laid down I felt the pain of those fractures.

Also, a terrible dizziness set in; a violent vertigo in which my entire world could - in an instant - turn upside down. I would be sitting on the couch speaking with someone when suddenly they would begin to spin, and I would lose all sense of horizon. That often led to a lack of control over my body and I would fall over.

I was admitted to the emergency room of Seattle's Harborview Medical Center, one the west coast's best trauma hospitals, where another round of CT scans was performed. I was assigned to the intern team of Dr. Richard Ellenbogen, himself a renowned trauma specialist. They performed hours of tests and an additional CT scan.

They described a fracture above my right ear that looked more like a spider web. "Imagine a glass ball, and tapping it with a hammer" the attending said. "The way the glass cracks from that point of impact is essentially what your fracture looks like." It extended upward from the ear, curved down and below the ear, and toward the base of the skull.

Worse, a fracture was found in the orbital roof of my right eye.

"There's not much we can do for you there," another specialist said. "It's misshapen. But we think your eyesight will become good again once the swelling goes down."

The fracture had punctured my brain, and bone pushed five millimeters in causing significant blood loss.

The assessment of how long I would be out of work was now about to grow considerably from the one I'd been given in Bellingham.

Six months to one year.

The new assessment still came with a caveat from the doctors. It could take anywhere from six months to one year for me to feel like myself again.

But there was also a chance that I would never adequately improve to ever photograph again.

I wrote the picture editors at the Times and told them that, even with that prognosis, I intended to be on the sidelines for the first game of the college football in September; fully five months beyond the accident.

Even so, I considered taking another path.

What if I couldn't ever return to photography again? What would I want to do?

I told Managing Editor David Boardman that I wanted to begin retraining immediately in web development. If I couldn't go back to photography, I wanted to move in to and do multimedia and design at the very least for the length of my convalescence.

The Times was initially fully supportive of my ambition but, for reasons quite apart from my injury, distanced themselves from it over time.

Undaunted, friends helped me acquire a copy of Studio 8 for Mac. I signed up for online courses in Dreamweaver and, as I had time, began tinkering with web design.

My goal was always to return to photography. I never wavered from saying I'd be ready for the fall season, even as the Times surmised I couldn't possibly recover that quickly and assigned the front end of the fall football season without me in it. I understood why, but I wasn't happy about it. An important part of recovery is setting goals. And yes, I might be setting goals I couldn't possibly attain or, for that matter, could be detrimental to my wellbeing. I understood that too.

But doggone it, if you don't set goals, if you don't work to achieve them, if you don't consider alternative futures - and if the company doesn't overtly support them - then just what is the motivation to get better?

It was going to be hard beating the odds. But if I was going to do it, there needed to be a reward at the end of it.

It's not surprising the Times and I didn't agree on what was best for me. And it wasn't the injury talking either. I didn't get to be a pain in the ass overnight. It took 18 years here for me to achieve that rep.

I was released from Harborview feeling that we were on the right course. I was referred to the University of Washington Medical Center Neurology Clinic for an evaluation now of what was going on behind the fracture. Just why was I so dizzy?

My insurance company had by now assigned a case manager to oversee my care. Fortunately for me, I got a great one. Mary Sussex had, among other things, done head trauma for the Seattle Seahawks. She was aggressive about my care, and her actions undoubtedly sped my recovery.

The doctors at the University had a theory.

My dizziness, they surmised, was caused by bone fragments that had broken free by the impact of the ball and were attacking nerve endings in my inner ear.

This can be sometimes corrected through a simple procedure referred to as an "Epley Maneuver."

Essentially, the doctor puts you on your head and, through a series of four aggressive maneuvers, attempts to steer the fragments back to their proper place.

Imagine a snow globe and turn it slowly, and watch the crystals fall to another location of the globe. That was what the doctors wanted to do to me.

Unfortunately for me, there was far too much swelling and blood for those crystals to find zero gravity.

Almost from the first time the doctor attempted the maneuver my body went into shock. Inverting my head caused my entire world to spin out of control, and my body with it. "Focus on the wall," the doctor said. But I couldn't see the wall. I couldn't see anything. And I had no sense of where my balance lay. I began to fall off the table at which point Rod Mar, who had taken me to the hospital, jumped up to grab me. The doctor gestured to him that he had me in his arms, and Rod watched as I flailed and hyperventilated for minutes until I could focus my eyes and regain my breath.

The doctors at the university determined I was no longer a candidate for the Epley, and said I was going to be off my feet for months. In fact, they decided not to even make a follow-up appointment for another two months. And they also declared that I would be banned from driving for at least six month, which is the law in Washington following any seizure.

"Two months?" I asked. I wanted to be more aggressive about my treatment than that, but they declined. Two months between visits? No MRI, no EEG, no treatment of any kind? They wanted to just wait and see how I progressed.

My nurse case manager challenged the doctors.

"What criteria are you using to base your treatment of Mr. Rutz?" she asked. "I've been researching his condition and can't find any data to support this."

There wasn't any, the doctors said. Quite simply, no one had ever studied trauma-induced seizures before.

We didn't know until some time later that was because, generally, people don't survive that kind of trauma.

As we exited the doctor's office, Mary said, "we're out of here." And she set out to find a new neurologist who would be more willing to aggressively treat me as I had asked.

Within a few days I was in the office of Dr. James Gordon, whom I came to like very quickly.

He knew my work, and he liked sports. And he quizzed me about players and batting averages and statistics.

"You realize that was all a test," he later conceded. "I wanted to test your cognitive thinking."

Gordon said he respected the University doctors greatly. But if I was willing to be more aggressive, then so was he.

An EEG study and MRI were both scheduled immediately. Days after leaving the University Karen, Mary Sussex and myself were back in Gordon's office.

Curiously too, Gordon was the only doctor to actually let me see my x-rays. He was the only doctor to show me film and point out all the damage.

Gordon sat looking at the films, hand under his chin.

"So, tell me about your surgery at St. Joe's," he said.

I didn't have any I told him.

"Huh." That was all he said, but it sure sounded knowing to me.

Why do you ask, I said.

"Well, the injury you have, the explanation of what you remember, it's all conducive with a particular type of hematoma. You get hit, you pass out, you wake up, you're lucid and alert…"

"…and you die within an hour if surgery isn't immediately performed."

I didn't even hear that last part.

Karen, Mary and I all looked at each other, speechless. "You die within an hour" was the 100-pound gorilla in the room with us. It took a minute or two for me to regain my composure.

Gordon pointed to the MRI.

Photo by Elaine Thompson  / Associated Press

Photo by Elaine Thompson / Associated Press

Karen Ducey and Dean Rutz with Dillon, Tucker and Sandy.
"Here's the break; this point pushes into the brain." He rotated the 3-dimensional film on his computer to show my eye socket. "See the breaks here and here?" A part of my eye became essentially a lever, broken on two ends and slightly tilted.

"And all these white spots on the film. These are where blood has pooled in your brain." There were at least a half dozen sizeable pockets of blood. "You may still be bleeding," he said.

The damage was catastrophic.

And a cyst was discovered on the opposite side of my brain. It would never have been found had the MRI not been done.

Yet here I was, talking without slurring my words. Walking, albeit with a cane.

Yes, I was one lucky sonofabitch.

I don't even ask why anymore. It doesn't really matter. I'm simply grateful that I am lucky. And loved.

Over the months that followed, so many people stepped up to help me that I can't even begin to name names. But Karen and I kept a diary of the hundreds upon hundreds of cards, letters, emails and gifts that poured into our home. It was humbling on a massive scale. Forget Christmas. The fireplace was covered with many more times the cards and well wishes.

Karen began referring to the fireplace as "the shrine."

People ask me what I've learned. "Do you feel like you need to live each day like it's your last?" is a frequent question.

No, that wasn't really the message in all of this.

First of all, who can live every day like it's their last? Who can live up to that kind of pressure?

No, the lesson I learned was the power of generosity.

I cannot begin to tell how much the flow of kind words, prayers, cards, and gifts sustained me over the four months that followed. Every day something new was on my doorstep. A bouncing ball from Smiley Pool of the Dallas Morning News, a pint of gelato from Jay Gorodetzer at the Philadelphia Inquirer, a basket of food from the Eugene Register-Guard, a batting helmet from Seattle Mariners Manager Mike Hargrove.

Every day for weeks someone at the Seattle Times would bring food for Karen and me, or walk our three dogs. Elaine Thompson from the Associated Press, who was a frequent visitor, would suddenly be in our yard mowing. The managing editor of the Times would show up almost unannounced with a pizza.

How can I thank Karen for everything she's done? She's the unsung hero of this column. There isn't sufficient space to account for her good works. Through it all, and despite the demands of her job, she cared for me, cared for the dogs and our home, cooked and cleaned, and generally earned two of three credits required for sainthood in the Catholic Church. She will always have my undying love and gratitude.

Actually, because it was me, she probably gets a free pass on that third credit.

And Rod? Sports Shooter regulars know he's a good guy. But you don't know the half of it.

It was off the chart.

I have never been on the receiving end of such generosity; such love and genuine kindness. It is sometimes difficult for me to process because I cannot see anything in my life to justify the outpouring.

"People need to do it more than you need to get it," Rod would say. "So just sit there and shut up."

Maybe that's it. We all want to do something to help, however small and seemingly insignificant it might be.

But it's not insignificant. Having been on this side of your collective generosity I cannot begin to tell you all how much it means. But it means everything.

The six months to one-year estimate I got on recovery? Forget it. I'm back to work just about four months after being hurt.

There was a sudden break in my dizziness a few weeks ago. The fog lifted, and my strength began to return. It mystified the doctors. It mystified me too.

Is that the result of all your kind wishes and prayers? How could it not be?

Bert says I should use this space to say thank you. I really wish I could, but there are so many of you.

Please know though that I am grateful to every one of you who took the time to wish me well. I know who you are, and I will never forget you. And I can never adequately repay you.

But I hope someday to pay it forward.

Because if there's one thing I've learned, it's that the power of generosity is beyond medicine and physical therapy. It's immeasurable, really. I never used to put a lot of stock in get-well cards. Too impersonal I used to think.

But being on the receiving end I can tell you I read - and savored - ever one.

Every email, every phone call, every surprise. They made my day, and that's saying something when you're looking at months and months of recovery. (By the way, if anybody wants to know what was on "Oprah" all summer long, just ask me.)

No, you can't live every moment like it's your last. But if you're kind and generous and loving, then, if it really is your last moment, well, I can't think of a better way to go out.

(Dean Rutz is once again working as a staff photographer at the Seattle Times.)

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