WHEN WALKER JOHNSON gets home from Spring Forest Middle School in Houston, he picks the baseballs out of the front yard. They're left by friends and strangers, mailmen and delivery guys, many scrawled with signatures and well wishes. Walker, who will soon turn 14, would love to grip one of those balls and fire it against a backstop. Instead, he drops it into another overflowing crate.
On the morning of March 29 at Klein Park, in the fifth inning of a 13U tournament game between the Houston Warriors and the Katy (Texas) Invaders, Walker threw a changeup, and a Katy hitter lined it up the middle. The ball struck Walker on the chest, over his left ventricle, and he fell to his knees. His father, Carey, bolted from the sideline. When he reached the mound, he found Walker lying on the dirt, mouth open but unable to breathe. "God," Carey said, "please don't take my baby." An ambulance wailed around the corner. Players from both teams whispered prayers. Suddenly Walker gasped, rose and walked slowly to the Warriors' dugout. "I remember thinking I should get some water," he recalls.
Paramedics put Walker on a stretcher and peppered him with questions. "What year is it? What's your mother's name? Where are you?" He answered them all correctly. "He just got the wind knocked out of him," one paramedic concluded. Carey was not convinced. Another paramedic, skeptical of Walker's low heartbeat, administered an echocardiogram in the ambulance. It revealed an abnormal heart rhythm. The ambulance spun a doughnut on the field.
Walker spent the next six days at Texas Children's Hospital, where doctors marveled at him. According to pediatric cardiologist Lisa D'Alessandro, the ball hit Walker's chest in the 20-millisecond window during each heartbeat when the heart is vulnerable to impact. As a result he suffered a sudden-death event known as commotio cordis, in which a blow to the chest induces a heart arrhythmia. "He is essentially a survivor of cardiac arrest," D'Alessandro says.
In the U.S. commotio cordis is most common in baseball because of its screaming line drives and in players less than 18 years old because their chest walls are more elastic, with less developed muscles. But it's still "exceptionally rare," D'Alessandro says, "and the fact that Walker spontaneously woke up is extremely uncommon." In the vast majority of similar cases a defibrillator is required to shock the heart into beating again. How Walker's heart restarted on its own is a mystery.
One night in the hospital Walker woke his mother, Christy, at 3 a.m. "I didn't want to make you sad," he said, "but when I was out there I saw the light, and it was beautiful." They cried together, moved by the miracle that saved his life and by the thought that others weren't as lucky. "That's when I decided," says Christy, "we have to get defibrillators at more of these fields."
She launched an online donation fund called Walker's Heart Warriors at Gofundme.com and raised more than $6,000 in the first month. She makes wreaths out of baseballs and burlap and sells them for $75 each. She received a grant to buy $1,400 portable defibrillators at a $500 discount. So far she has collected enough money to buy six of them for Houston-area diamonds.
Walker finished the school year but arrived late and left early each day. He skipped phys ed and rested in the nurse's office when he felt tired, which was often. He experiences occasional chest pains and shortness of breath, but he complains mainly about the fatigue, a side effect of medication to prevent another arrhythmia. "I'm kind of a zombie in the morning and a zombie at night and a zombie in the middle of the day," he says. Though he is not allowed to participate in sports, D'Alessandro is optimistic he will play again.
Walker is a part-time catcher and third baseman, but he identifies as a pitcher, and no line drive can change that. He will throw out the first pitch at an Astros game on his birthday, June 15. When cleared to play, he will be back on the mound, along with an important upgrade. His team is getting the first defibrillator.
The baseball struck Walker Johnson on the chest, over his left ventricle. "He is essentially," says one of his doctors, "a survivor of cardiac arrest."
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ANN JOHANSSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED