Close call means LZ's Witt will have to sit

  • Lake Zurich's Tanner Witt watches a game from the top step of the dugout at Libertyville.

      Lake Zurich's Tanner Witt watches a game from the top step of the dugout at Libertyville. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Published4/25/2008 12:07 AM

One day Tanner Witt was feeling fine.

The next, his arm started getting heavy. It swelled. Then it turned purple.


Before he knew it, he was spending his first of four nights in intensive care, wondering how on earth a fit and healthy 17-year-old athlete could have gotten a potentially deadly blood clot in his right arm.

Witt knows the answer now, but it provides only partial comfort.

The Lake Zurich star shortstop, who was discharged from Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington last week, is relieved to know that his condition, "effort thrombosis," is completely treatable and fixable. The hard part is knowing that treating and fixing it means that he'll likely have to miss the rest of a junior season that had the potential to end with a bang.

The Bears are one of the best teams in Lake County. They've got high hopes that they can parlay an Elite Eight finish in last year's summer state baseball tournament into a North Suburban Conference championship and a deep run into the upcoming IHSA state playoffs.

Poor Witt. How unfair it is that all he can do now is sit.

"It's tough knowing that this was one year that we were going to be really, really good," said Witt, who would have continued to help Lake Zurich's cause with his .435 batting average, rock solid defense and an 86-mph fastball that earned him an occasional start on the mound. "Now I have to sit on the sidelines and try to help in other ways."

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But before that can even happen, Witt needs to recover from the surgery he was scheduled to have this week in St. Louis.

A specialist there will correct the problem that caused the blood clot in the first place. Witt says that the doctors he's seen so far theorize that a vein in his shoulder area was constricted either by a possible extra rib or irregular muscle development that left too little space around his collarbone.

The purpose of the surgery is to create enough space for the vein to function normally, either by removing or shaving down a rib or by rearranging the crowded area.

"I've been told that some people have this and that they just live their whole lives with it and don't even know it," Witt said. "But for athletes who do a lot of that over-the-head arm movement, like baseball pitchers and swimmers and volleyball players, it will become a problem."

For Witt, the problem could have been huge. Catastrophic, in fact.

The clot was a startling inch-and-a-half long and could have easily traveled to his brain or heart.


"You feel so sorry for the kid because he had everything going for himself this year. He was playing so well. You know it's eating him up not to be playing," Lake Zurich coach Gary Simon said. "But then you think about what was going on with his arm and you're not thinking about that.

"You're just so thankful they caught this before anything really terrible happened. Tanner also pitches for us and you just think about how he could have been out there pitching and that clot could have moved to the wrong place. He could have died on the mound."

Witt says that the doctors at the hospital kept telling him how lucky he was.

But perhaps it was Witt who made his own luck by acting swiftly as soon as he didn't feel quite right.

Witt first noticed a soreness in his armpit and then the heaviness in his arm after lifting weights.

He told his coach, and his trainers immediately. Soon after, doctors were summoned.

Unfortunately, not every problem in high school athletics is treated with such urgency.

Some kids will downplay injuries or signs of a problem. Others will outright ignore them.

They don't want to sit out, miss a practice, miss a game.

Witt's not sure where he'd be now if he had done that.

"I just know that my health is important to me," Witt said. "Yeah, you're worried about finding out something bad because you don't want to hear that you can't play. But I'd rather know what's wrong.

"The way it turned out, this was nothing to be joking around about."

Doctors at Good Shepherd Hospital dissolved the blood clot in Witt's arm by using an intravenous drug. That happened quickly, but he was forced to stay in the hospital -- for a total of five days -- for observation.

"Probably the hardest part of this whole thing was keeping him in that (hospital) bed," Witt's mother Lorrie said with a chuckle. "Once they dissolved the clot, he was feeling fine, no pain. He wanted to go home.

"But I think he understood the severity of all of it. I mean, our world had really changed in the blink of an eye and we needed to deal with that."

The Witts then set off to thoroughly research "effort thrombosis" and to make arrangements for second opinions.

A respected doctor at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago recommended that the Witts contact Dr. Robert Thompson at Washington University Hospital in St. Louis because he has handled this condition in athletes before. He's had success at helping his patients recover fully for an active lifestyle.

"As we've done the research and checked things out, we've found that (Thompson) is tops in his field," said Tommie Witt, Tanner's dad. "We feel like Tanner's in very good hands.

"But you know, it's still scary. For something like this to happen to a 17-year-old, and probably the healthiest person in our family, it's a pretty big deal. It makes you pretty anxious."

Speaking of anxious, Witt says he'll be counting down the days until he can get back on the field.

Doctors have estimated his recovery time will be anywhere between six and eight weeks.

Simon is hoping he might be able to use his superstar as a designated hitter for the playoffs. Of course, that would be an absolute best-case scenario.

Worst-case scenario would have Witt back in action at the very beginning of the summer recruiting season, which will likely be a very busy time for him. He's already had dozens of Division I schools -- such as Baylor, Louisville, Michigan, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Arkansas and Cal State Fullerton -- putting feelers out.

"I'm going to have a lot of time to think about what I want to work on this summer, and how I want to get better," said Witt, who has long dreamed about playing college baseball. "I'm going to be very ready to get back and get going again."

Not that Witt won't also take some time to drink it all in.

"I think I've realized through all of this that had this been even more serious, I could have played my last baseball game," Witt said. "I'm not going to take anything for granted anymore. I'm going to appreciate it all."

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