Fight of his life

October 25, 2004 11:00 pm
Justin Deal shows a scar from the emergency surgery that saved his life. The football player and rodeo rider is taking it easy following a brain injury that threatened his life. (Baker City Herald/Kathy Orr).
Justin Deal shows a scar from the emergency surgery that saved his life. The football player and rodeo rider is taking it easy following a brain injury that threatened his life. (Baker City Herald/Kathy Orr).

By GERRY STEELE

Of the Baker City Herald

A year ago Justin Deal was practicing as a member of the Powder Valley football team that went on to become the Class 1A state championships.

Now, just 12 months later, Deal is recovering after battling for his life.

The senior, who transferred to Baker High School this year and was a member of the Bulldogs football squad, had emergency brain surgery in late September to relieve a blockage and swelling on the brain.

The athletic teen played running back for the Bulldogs. He also participated in high school rodeo competitions as a bronc rider.

Now he's just happy to be able to sit on the sidelines and watch the Baker games.

Deal said the problem started after he took a hard hit in Baker's 7-6 victory over Scappoose on Sept. 17. He began having extreme headaches and his equilibrium was off.

At first, Deal said, he didn't tell anyone he was having that severe a problem. But, the Baker coaches and others around him began to notice, and Deal was scheduled for tests at St. Elizabeth Health Services.

"I had had headaches earlier," Deal said. "I just took Tylenol and didn't say anything. But they just kept getting worse."

The Monday following the Scappoose game Deal was admitted to St. Elizabeth Health Services.

"I couldn't stand up," Deal said.

He was there for almost a week before going to a Portland hospital.

Deal had a spinal tap, blood tests, a CAT scan and an MRI at the Baker hospital but doctors still couldn't find the problem.

So, other tests were suggested.

"My Uncle Gene, who lives with us, called some people he knew and we got an appointment at St. Vincent's in Portland," Deal said. "I was supposed to see a Dr. Michael Sandquist."

The Deals were scheduled to travel to Portland by car, but after reviewing the earlier tests Sandquist wouldn't allow it.

"He called us and told us he didn't want me riding that far in a car with that kind of problem," Deal said. "So they Life Flighted me from Baker to Portland."

He said Sandquist wanted to meet with hospital neurosurgeons before doing anything, and started through a list of possible problems.

What doctors found in Portland is so rare there hadn't been much written about it in medical journals.

"The doctor told me it had only happened a couple of times before, so my problem has now been written up in the medical journals," Deal said.

What doctors found was that the right ventricle in Deal's brain — the path for the cerebrospinal fluid to flow from the brain to the spinal cord — had swollen shut. Fluid was unable to flow as it should, causing swelling on the brain.

Deal said the ventricle had been diagnosed smaller than normal when he was born. Apparently the hit he took in the Scappoose game caused the area to swell, sealing off the pathway.

In Portland, Deal spent a week in intensive care before surgery was performed. There he underwent another battery of tests, including another CAT scan and MRI.

He was put on intravenous fluids, while doctors tried to determine the exact problem.

"During the initial surgery doctors thought it was a cyst causing the blockage. But, when they got in there they saw that the ventricle had swollen shut," Deal said.

So, doctors used a laser to burn a hole from the right ventricle to the left.

"They didn't want to do any more at that time because that is the area on the brain that tells your heart to beat," Deal said. "It was life threatening at that time."

The surgery proved to successful so far, with the left ventricle now doing the job of both ventricles.

"Doctors told me there's a 5-percent chance this won't work, but it's unlikely," Deal said.

Following surgery, Deal remained in ICU for a few days before being moved to a private room. Then, after three or four days there, he was moved to the hospital's outpatient housing for a few more days.

Deal said one of the side effects of the surgery is that he currently has a bad short memory span.

"The doctor would come in and administer memory tests. The first couple of times were really rough," Deal said. "The surgery went through the memory area of the brain."

After starting his recovery, Deal telephoned Baker coach Dave Johnson to let him know how he was doing.

"A couple of the guys on the team called me, and my family," Deal said. "It was hard in ICU, because you can't have any calls, and only one visitor at a time.

"Once I woke up, I had a hard time. I was sick to my stomach, and couldn't figure out what was happening."

Deal said he told Coach Johnson what he had gone through and what the near future would bring.

For now, Deal cannot participate in school physical education classes.

"Nothing that jerks my head," he said. "Limited physical activity for at least six weeks."

He said he hasn't tested his equilibrium all that much yet.

"I have to go back in six weeks for another MRI and checkup," Deal said.

Deal, who also rides broncs in high school rodeo competition, said that activity also is on hold for now.

"I'm not sure whether I'll be able to do that any more or not," he said. "It depended on what happens in six weeks."

Deal said doctors told him that the injury will have to heal on its own.

"They said you'll pretty much know when it comes back," he said. "Not yet."

Deal's memory is coming back slowly. Some things have been quicker than others. Although he is basically through with high school athletics, Deal still plans to graduate next spring. To that end, BHS teachers are helping him get back into the flow.

Deal's classes now include a study hall class. In his other classes he is assigned only the main assignments, and not any extra things.

"It's getting me to the point where I know what I'm doing on the main assignments," he said. "Everybody's been a huge help. Plus my family has helped me out a ton.

"In the hospital you get so bored and lonely. My family — dad and mom were there every day — and people who called, that really helped. And, the hospital people were great.

"My cousin Diehl Hiner came to see me the day I went in, and he was there when I got out," Deal said. "He's my best friend. He's always been there for me."

As for symptoms to be aware of, Deal said headaches and nausea are two warning signs.

"Headaches you can't even imagine. It feels like your head has no more room to get bigger, yet it does. That's the worst pain I've ever felt," he said.

"I got sick when I stood up, and you can't sleep. It won't let you."

Deal said the biggest thing to remember is get help quickly.

"Don't mess around with it," he said. "If you have a headache and have been hit in the head, tell somebody. It's nothing to mess around with."