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Brett Jackson: The Bounce-Back Kid


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First came the light-headedness. Then dizziness set in. All of the sudden, the back part of his head started to ache uncontrollably.

Moments later, he couldn’t feel anything on the right side of his body – his arm, leg…nothing. Before he knew it, the ability to hear and see out of his right ear and right eye were gone too. He vomited.

His sister dialed 911. Slowly losing consciousness and feeling cold, he was loaded into an ambulance en route to Community Hospital East. With his parents in their car trailing the ambulance, the young man developed a heart murmur. His breathing slowed. Abruptly, the ambulance shifted into emergency mode and sped off.

On Dec. 21, 2012, Brett Jackson suffered a brain hemorrhage.

***

Mike Jackson was at home when his wife, Tina, called to say their son was in bad shape at a New Palestine gym. Brett, a former Dragon who was coming off his freshman baseball season at Marian University, was working out with his sister, Erin, when his brain began to bleed.

When Mike arrived at the scene, he described his son as looking “obviously distressed.”

“We didn’t have a clue what was going on. Everything in the book ran through my head except what ended up being wrong with him,” Mike recalled. “I called his friends. When you start having something like this, you start thinking of the worst things. You start thinking, ‘Was he drinking? Was he doing drugs?’

“I knew my kid wasn’t doing that and would never do that – but that’s what you think in a situation like that.”

Mike and Tina were following Brett’s ambulance when their son’s heartbeat turned irregular, prompting the ambulance to flip on its emergency lights and step on the gas.

“Now we’re really freaking out,” Mike said. “We’re running red lights to get to the ER.”

A nephew of Mike’s was on-call at the hospital and kept the Jacksons abreast of their son’s condition. Eventually, Brett’s brain stopped bleeding and surgery was avoided.

Brett refers to his ailment as a “freak accident.” The official medical terminology behind his ailment is a cerebral arteriovenous malformation, or AVM.

According to U.S. National Library of Medicine, AVM arises when “arteries in the brain connect directly to nearby veins without having the normal vessels (capillaries) between them.” Pressure and damage to blood vessel tissue causes an AVM rupture, which permits blood to leak into the brain or surrounding tissues and cuts off blood flow to the brain. AVM is present at birth and affects less than one percent of all people.

“Some people are born with it and it doesn’t affect them at all. For others, a certain stress or maybe like a hit in football to the head will cause that vessel to break, explode or pop,” Brett said. “That causes the bleeding, and that’s when the loss of hearing, vision, numbness – all that occurs.”

When his brain was bleeding, Brett endured damage to one of his optic nerves – the nerve that connects the eye to the brain – and began to experience severe double vision.

Brett spent a total of five days in the hospital. The first three days he was mostly bed-ridden.

“When I did (get up), it was absolutely terrible trying to walk just because of that vision and the disorientation of my body,” Brett said.

On Day 4, with the assistance of his mother and sisters, Brett took laps around the hospital floor. He struggled to keep food down and occasionally threw up. There were lighter moments, such as when friends and family came to visit and Tina and Brett’s sisters kept track of the “goofy” things he said. The Jacksons wound up celebrating Christmas in Brett’s hospital room.

But for the most part, Brett was purely in pain.

“The headaches were migraines times 10,” he said.

***

Two months passed before the swelling in Brett’s brain subsided, which in turn quelled his double vision. Even though he was nowhere close to playing baseball again, Brett still wanted to go to class at Marian – a decision Brett’s doctors left up to him. If it weren’t for doctor’s appointments, Brett would have never missed a class.

“I got through the days with some headaches,” he said. “I thought it was really important for me to be there in class.”

Perhaps the harder part was being inactive. A former football and baseball standout at New Palestine, Brett was constantly in motion.

Unfortunately, a brain hemorrhage was also not the first serious injury to befall Brett.

After he was born on May 7, 1992, Brett spent a week in the ICU thanks to breathing complications.

Heading into his freshman year of high school, Brett suffered an avulsion fracture of his pelvis playing travel baseball. High ankle sprains kept him out of a few football games his sophomore and junior seasons.

During the fall of 2011, his senior year of football, Brett suffered a broken fibula and a dislocated ankle against Greenfield-Central. He recovered quickly enough to play baseball, though.

Before he was cleared for physical activity after his brain hemorrhage, Brett had to sit and wait. And sit and wait. And sit and wait.

With all that time stuck in neutral, Brett began to experience doubt. He had thoughts of giving up his athletic career.

“Having so many injuries in the past, I felt as if someone didn’t want me to be out there playing, like God was kind of sending me a message,” he said.

But the more time he spent in thought, the clearer Brett’s future became to him. The kid that spent so much time recovering and preventing injuries in the athletic training room wanted to give back to kids who would eventually be in his shoes. He wanted to become an athletic trainer.

“It was kind of cool that I learned something from each injury,” he said. “I don’t know. I just feel like that’s what my calling is now, to help people that are going through things that I went through and to set things right.”

Though he has sometimes wondered what his son has to do to catch a break, Mike has always been impressed with Brett’s ability to bounce back from his various maladies.

“I’m struck with how my son has always handled stuff, how he’s always taken it in stride and battled back,” Mike said. “He’s never really complained and said, ‘Poor me,’ or anything like that. He’s just always said, ‘I’m going to come back and play baseball.’ And he’s taken that to the next level with what he’s studying.

“He’s a tough kid and he’s kept a great outlook.”

Brett’s coach felt good about his prospects of coming back.

“He’s a mentally and physically tough kid,” Marian baseball head coach Todd Bacon said. “If anyone can come back from a serious injury, I was pretty confident he’d be the one to do it.”

Brett’s vision slowly improved. He rotated wearing a patch over each eye for strengthening purposes. After a few weeks, Brett stopped wearing the patch. Not too long after that, he called Mike to let him know he could see the family house from a mile down the street.

Around two months after his brain hemorrhage, Brett was in an exercise prescription class. The class was instructed to do as many push-ups as they could in a minute’s time. Brett’s teacher said he could sit out. Brett declined, ready to embark on what amounted to his first physical activity since the injury. He did 45 push-ups.

“That was definitely a turning point,” Brett said, “because I realized I was still be able to produce physically and had a chance to play baseball the same way I did before the injury.”

On Feb. 26, 2013 – the day of Marian’s season-opener – Brett was fully cleared. But, the Knights had to turn in a final roster prior to that day, so Brett would be unable to play during the 2013 campaign. He decided to redshirt.

Bacon, now in his first season at the Knights’ head coach after five seasons as an assistant, believes the year off paid dividends for Brett.

“Last year when the doctors told him he could start working out and running, I know every coach on the staff was in conservative mode. We told him not to do too much,” Bacon said. “He was gung-ho about playing last year, but it was a good time to take a year and get into a lot better shape mentally and physically.”

During the team’s spring break trip to Florida last March, Brett, primarily a second baseman, took infield for the first time.

“That was just an adrenaline high,” he recalled. “It was a great feeling to be back on the field.”

***

The exact cause of what happened to Brett Jackson on Dec. 21, 2012 is unknown. One of Brett’s neurologists said the only way to find out what happened was for Brett to undergo an autopsy.

“We’ll pass on that,” Mike recalls saying at the time, now able to remember the situation with a touch of humor.

Though the headaches stopped two to three months after his injury, Brett still doesn’t have peripheral vision in his right eye. It’s possible he will never regain that line of sight – a common complication of AVM.

Brett batted .333 as a freshman during the 2011-12 season, good for the second-highest average on the team. Through 29 games this season, Jackson is hitting .295 while sporting an on-base percentage of .376.

As a left-handed hitter, Brett’s vision loss doesn’t come into play at the plate, and he maintains that he carries no fear of getting hit in the head with a pitch that could send him back to the ER.

“None of those thoughts have crossed my mind,” he said. “As a hitter, you don’t want to be thinking at the plate.”

There have been necessary changes in the field, though.

“Being a second basemen, when there’s a runner on first or any situation where there’s a runner coming to second, it’s hard for me to see the bag because I don’t have that peripheral vision in my right eye,” Brett explained. “I’ve kind of adjusted to where I look at the bag before the pitch and then every time I get set. If there’s a play at second, I have to look at the bag before I actually go to the bag just to make sure I’m on top of it.”

Mike and the rest of the family supported Brett’s return to the game.

“He can see the baseball and he’s hitting pretty well. There’s concern that a ground ball might jump up and catch him, but so far he’s adjusted and adapted. At the plate, he just turns his head and he can see everything,” Mike said. “I don’t have any problems with him continuing on with baseball.”

Brett, a redshirt sophomore, could graduate next year, but wants to play baseball through his fifth-year senior season, so he’s on track to graduate in 2016. He plans to enroll in graduate school for athletic training upon completing his undergraduate studies at Marian.

The long-awaited return to game action came March 6 vs. Butler. Batting leadoff for the Knights, Jackson was due up first for the visitors.

The first pitch Brett saw, he ripped into right field for a base hit. In his next at-bat, Brett did the same thing. He finished 3-for-3 with a walk and a run scored.

“It was kind of like I was in the zone,” Brett said.

Mike remembers feeling great about Brett returning to practice. That emotion paled in comparison to the euphoria he experienced March 6.

“It still didn’t hit me until his first game this year when they played Butler and he went 3-for-3,” Mike said. “That was like the greatest feeling the world, and I could say, ‘All right, he’s definitely back. We can put this thing to bed. It’s over.’”

***

Hancock County Knights

In addition to Brett Jackson, four other members of the Marian University baseball team hail from Hancock County programs. The Knights are 16-19 this season.

Taylor Gibson

Senior infielder, Mt. Vernon class of 2010.

Gibson has appeared in 34 games with 33 starts and is hitting .255 with a .364 on-base percentage.

Cam Gruell

Freshman IF/P, Greenfield-Central class of 2013.

Appeared in six games as a position player and has logged 1 and 2/3 innings on the mound.

Derek Higgins

Junior pitcher, New Palestine class of 2010.

Higgins is tops on the team in wins (five) and innings pitched (53 and 1/3) and has a 3.96 ERA.

Brendon Neal

Freshman OF/P, Greenfield-Central, class of 2013.

Neal is 3-3 with a 1.44 ERA in 43 and 2/3 innings. At the plate, Neal has a .235 average with eight runs scored.

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