From Surgery to Staff Ace

Two potentially life-threatening incidents didn’t stop Emory’s Reed Harvey from landing the top spot on the Eagles’ pitching staff.

By Guillermo Metz

Guillermo Metz is an Associate Editor at Training & Conditioning.

Training & Conditioning, 13.7, October 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1307/stafface.htm

Reed Harvey doesn’t want to be remembered for cheating death—though the fact that he did so twice has given him a greater appreciation for life. He just wants to play baseball. And after helping his Emory University teammates reach the NCAA Division III tournament in the spring of 2003, he’s just getting to the top of his game.

Harvey’s first serious brush came in a water-skiing accident when he was 13. When the tip of his ski took a slight dip under the water, the back end came up with enormous force and struck Harvey in the head, just behind his ear, creating a golf ball-sized hole in his skull. He was airlifted to a children’s hospital, where neurosurgeons considered placing a metal plate under his cracked skull, but had to wait for parental consent. It took Harvey’s mother, Corky, five hours to get there, and his father, Dean, arrived shortly thereafter.

That delay might have saved Harvey’s life. While waiting, the radiologist had time to properly look over the films. He noticed a bone fragment lodged in a tiny vein and became concerned that an operation could rupture the vein, causing Harvey to bleed to death. When Corky Harvey arrived, she sought another opinion, which led to the agreement that the best option was to close the wound and allow it to heal on its own.

Recovery primarily involved waiting. Eventually, though, Harvey was cleared to play high school baseball, but he had to wear a helmet, even in the field. Football was out of the question. That was fine with him, since he preferred baseball, and he soon moved from third base to catcher, because catchers had to wear helmets during play anyway. Occasionally, the coach would call on him to pitch, too.

Harvey went on to play at Emory, where at 6’1” and about 175 pounds, he showed promise, but mostly, he impressed everyone with his work ethic and positive spirit. “He was one of the hardest workers on the team,” says Head Coach Mike Twardoski. “Even as a freshman, he was a leader. When he came back as a sophomore, I told him I wanted to play him more if he could get his strength up and gain some weight. But no matter how much he worked out, no matter how much he ate, he wasn’t able to gain weight.”

That concerned Harvey, as did a small lump above his eyebrow, but he didn’t draw any connection between the two. “He came home over Christmas break of his sophomore year and, even though he’d had it for years, he finally decided to have someone look at the lump on his forehead, because it was growing,” recalls his father, Dean. “Our family doctor thought it was probably just a fatty cyst, and sent him to see a plastic surgeon about having it removed.

“The plastic surgeon took a look at it and thought there might be more going on,” he adds. “He wanted to take some scans before doing anything. Reed wasn’t sure it was worth the trouble, but finally agreed to it.”

As a pathologist at UCLA Medical Center, Dean Harvey knew the MRI technician. When the five-minute procedure lapsed past the 15- and 20-minute marks, he grew concerned. When the tech finally called him over, 45 minutes after starting the scan, he was downright worried.

“He called me over and showed me some of the scans,” Dean recalls. “Then he pointed out a light spot and my heart just sank. He mentioned cancer and I knew my life was over, and Reed’s life was over.”

But Dean understood the scans weren’t conclusive, so he went out to the waiting room and reassured his son, saying it was probably just a cyst. Then he rushed the scans to a friend, Ronald Rich, MD, a neurosurgeon in private practice who had overseen Reed’s care following his water-skiing accident.

“Dr. Rich looked at the images and said he thought it was a benign cyst, but that there was no way to tell until he operated,” Dean says. “He also said it was putting pressure on Reed’s pituitary gland, so even if it was benign, it had to go.”

By interfering with the pituitary gland and its huge array of hormones, the cyst was probably the cause of Reed’s metabolic problems over the past year. It was also pressing on his optic nerve, and Dr. Rich warned that within six months Reed might start losing his sight.

Three emotionally grueling weeks later, Reed underwent surgery at USC Medical Center, which has a pituitary surgery unit. Martin Weiss, MD, Chair of the Department of Neurological Surgery performed the operation. When Dr. Weiss emerged from the operating room with a smile, the Harveys breathed their first sigh of relief. He told them the cyst was actually a tumor that had become cystic, but that it was benign and that he was confident he’d been able to remove all of it.

Within two weeks of the operation, Reed and Corky were on a cross-country train ride back to Emory. (He couldn’t fly because his skull and brain were too sensitive to the changes in air pressure.) He showed up at baseball practice, but no one was sure he’d ever be able to participate again. “I’d watch him jogging around the bases, and he’d have to rest every few minutes,” says Twardoski. “I told him there would always be a space for him on the team. We wanted him back, but we also knew he had to take his time.”

In March 2001, Reed made his return to the field, as a pinch hitter. “I couldn’t believe after all that had happened, I was still playing college baseball,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It really is such a blessing I found [the tumor] so early. I’m lucky.”

After playing in nine games as a sophomore, Reed went home that summer and worked to get his strength back. With a new determination and the full function of his pituitary gland, he made considerable gains by the time he returned to Emory in the fall of 2001. He was happy, and fortunate, to be backup catcher and pinch hitter, but he knew he could do more.

“Before the season started, I pulled him aside,” recalls Twardoski, “and I said, ‘The team loves you, and I want you to be a part of it. I’ll find a place for you, but it may not be as catcher. We might try you at third base.’

“He looked at me and said there was one position he wanted to try out for, and that was pitcher,” Twardoski continues. “I knew he had a great arm, so I had no problem giving him the chance. The first time I saw him pitch, I was impressed. He had a lot of raw ability.”

Late February of his junior year, Harvey’s latest dream came true when he came in as a relief pitcher for nearly two innings. “I was so excited when coach summoned me,” he told The NCAA News. “I knew then that pitching was what I wanted to do. I had finally found my niche on the team so I could contribute to its success. That game was symbolic of my reward for sticking through all the tough times when I thought about quitting.”

Harvey had a decent season—by the end of it he was the team’s closer—and both he and Twardoski knew he was just starting to reach his potential. Twardoski told him to work hard over the summer because he was considering him for a starting pitcher slot the following year.

Harvey went back to California for the summer, playing catcher and occasionally pitching in an area league. But the team practiced and played most of its games in East L.A., a long commute from home. So Twardoski put him in touch with someone from the neighborhood: former major league pitcher Kevin Gross.

“Reed called Kevin up one day and told him who he was and asked Kevin if he’d be interested in working with him,” says Dean Harvey. “I think Kevin wasn’t all that eager—until he saw Reed throw. Then they hit it right off, and he worked with Reed, getting his strength up and working on his form and technique.”

The hours spent working out in the gym, combined with advice from Gross, did the trick. Harvey worked hard in the preseason and he found himself on the mound for Emory’s opener against Brescia University. He pitched six innings, giving up only four hits in the loss. Harvey had exceeded his dreams and become a starting pitcher.

Later in the season, the Eagles were 22-12—not bad but certainly not outstanding. “Reed was doing great on the mound,” says Twardoski, “but the team was faltering. They weren’t hitting well and they were making all kinds of mistakes. I think they were trying too hard for Reed.

“One day, Reed came into practice and said, ‘Come on guys, let’s stop trying so hard and just enjoy ourselves,’” Twardoski continues. “He realized what was going on and also knew that winning or losing wasn’t that important. He was just happy to be out there playing, and he wanted everyone else to lighten up.”

That turned the team around. Not only did the players go out with renewed enthusiasm and a different mindset; they also started winning more games. The Eagles earned a spot in the regionals, where Harvey was named MVP after leading the team there with a 2-0 record and 3.00 ERA.

Harvey finished the season as one of three finalists for the region Pitcher of the Year honor, with a 2.54 earned run average, ninth best in school history. He was also one of two Eagles voted to the Verizon Academic All-District team for their athletic and academic accomplishments.

A neuroscience and behavioral biology major at Emory, Harvey graduated in May and spent some time playing with Allentown in the independent Northeast League. Now, he’s looking at two options, trying out for the pros in the fall and going to medical school.