published Friday, January 17th, 2014

Cory Gearrin brings smile to ill local Braves fan

Braves pitcher Cory Gearrin visits Melody West, a patient at Memorial Healthcare System, on Thursday.
Braves pitcher Cory Gearrin visits Melody West, a patient at Memorial Healthcare System, on Thursday.
Photo by Erin O. Smith.

Cory Gearrin was visiting his family's Rhea County home earlier this week when the phone rang. A friend of a friend of a friend needed a special favor from the Atlanta Braves relief pitcher.

Over the past seven weeks, Gearrin was told, Melody West has been fighting for her life inside a Memorial Hospital ICU unit, tethered to all manner of IV tubes, breathing contraptions and monitors as she struggles to overcome severe complications from influenza. The 36-year-old Ringgold, Ga., woman is getting better, but the friend hoped a visit from someone on her favorite sports team might hasten her recovery.

"She's been a Braves fan all her life," said her father, Larry West, who's fighting his own battle with prostate cancer. "If they're playing, she's watching. She keeps a scorebook during every game."

And like many Braves fans of her generation, Melody will instantly answer, "Chipper [Jones]," when asked her all-time favorite player.

At least she would have until 10:30 Thursday morning, when Gearrin entered her hospital room wearing his Sunday red No. 53 Braves jersey.

"Everybody's told me you're the biggest Braves fan there is," Gearrin said as Melody's face broke into a giant smile. "I'm so excited to meet you. Hopefully, we'll see you in Atlanta soon."

Gearrin then posed for pictures, as well as spending time with Melody's doctors, nurses and parents.

"To see her so happy," said her mother, Carolyn, "we were all crying."

Melody's nightmare started late Thanksgiving night. A fever. Aches and pains. A cough. The same flu symptoms many of us have experienced at one time or another.

Only Melody soon got worse. Much worse. By the Saturday morning of Nov. 30 she was on her way to Memorial, already struggling to survive.

"She shouldn't have lived," Dr. Lee Hamilton said in recalling Melody's condition during those early days in the hospital. "She was about as sick as a human can get. We were very concerned about her survival."

West's complications could happen to anyone, though they rarely do. As a result of the flu virus, she developed sepsis, a condition in which the body has a severe response to bacteria or other germs.

"In effect, your immune system tries to kill you," Hamilton explained.

In Melody's case, sepsis most attacked the lungs, causing Adult (or Acute) Respiratory Distress Syndrome, which has proved fatal at least 25 percent of the time, even when quickly diagnosed and treated. Without treatment the mortality rate is 90 percent. So severe was Melody's ARDS that Memorial turned to its ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation) machine to save her life.

"Extracorporeal" means the blood circulates outside the body with the help of a machine. Purchased by the hospital in 2011, it has been used nine times, saving seven lives.

"With Melody, we drew her blood, oxygenated it, then returned it to her body, which allowed her lungs to rest," Hamilton explained. "She still has months of recovery and rehabilitation ahead of her, but I don't think God would let her get this far and not take her all the way home."

And once she gets home, the entire West family can begin planning a trip to watch the Braves at Turner Field. Though Gearrin's visit was his own doing, the Atlanta front office sent a box of goodies that included a Freddie Freeman bobble-head doll, a baseball, an authentic Braves players ball cap, a red foam tomahawk and some schedules. Bigger still, it threw in a Braves game for the family, which was described to Hamilton as giving the Wests "the royal treatment."

Life certainly has not always treated the Wests royally. Melody has suffered seizure disorders most of her life. Though she graduated from Ringgold High School in 1995, the condition has forced her to live at home, where she often helps her mother babysit her niece Madeline and nephew Conner.

Then there's Larry West's current battle with cancer, which already has included 27 chemotherapy treatments and 30 radiation treatments.

"I'm doing OK," he said Thursday. "[Melody's health] is much more important right now."

However minor in nature compared to Melody's struggles, Gearrin has had his own health concerns the past six months. The Braves shut him down for the last half of the 2013 season after the side-armed reliever began to experience pain in his right throwing shoulder.

"When Dr. [James] Andrews says stop," Gearrin said of the famed surgeon, "you stop."

Such prudence has allowed the 27-year-old to avoid surgery, and months of rehab in Boston have improved him to "100 percent," he said, heading into the start of spring training for pitchers and catchers on Feb. 13 in Orlando.

"I was very fortunate to be a part of this," Gearrin said. "I've been out of town, mostly in Boston, 99 percent of the time this offseason. But when they called and said there's this huge Braves fan in Chattanooga who's basically a medical miracle, I couldn't wait to get here. It just shows you how special the Braves organization is to reach out to someone like Melody."

The Braves are special to so many in this region. Dr. Hamilton, who held the batting average record at Ooltewah High School for close to a decade after graduating from there in 1985, remembers regular treks to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium when "Dale Murphy was playing and the team was so bad you had your own section to sit in."

The Wests are such fans that they don't just watch every game on television or make an occasional trip to Turner Field.

"We actually go to watch the Rome Braves a lot more than we go to Atlanta," Carolyn West said of the family's trips with Melody's cousin Valerie Townsell to cheer the organization's Class A team. "It's closer and we love the ballpark."

It can be tough to explain why sports and those who play it mean so much to so many of us, especially in the South. But as Gearrin helped pull a Braves blanket over Melody, Dr. Hamilton stood at a distance, soaking up a singular act of kindness made possible by many.

"That smile on her face when Cory walked in the room was magical," he said. "To see that look makes all the hard work put in by so many ... it makes it all worthwhile. It really is a miracle."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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