Max Garner is a walking, pitching miracle.
Two summers ago, he was lying on a hospital bed, prepped for surgery and waiting to have his colon removed. This otherwise healthy 19-year-old young man was literally fighting for his life with ulcerative colitis, a rare disease that's characterized by severe swelling and ulcers in the colon.
"The colon was swollen pretty much beyond belief," said Garner, a redshirt sophomore pitcher from Austin (Texas) Lake Travis. "I had lost almost a third of my blood . . . They did a colonoscopy, and there were ulcers everywhere. It was about as bad of a case as they had ever seen, especially in someone who is 19 years old."
When he first started experiencing stomach pains, Garner just figured he had some kind of virus.
After a disappointing freshman season at Baylor in 2009, Garner was pitching in the Northwoods League that summer when he started having fever, lost 20 pounds in two weeks and "really had no energy. I was throwing fastballs about 81, 82 mph, for no reason."
"I had never had any major health problems, except for a couple sprained ankles or something like that," Garner said. "I had never anything that was threatening my career or especially not threatening my life."
But there he was, 19 years old, lying in a hospital bed in his hometown of Austin and minutes away from getting his colon removed in an emergency surgery.
"I was in a struggle for my life," he said. "They were probably 45 minutes away from taking me into surgery to have my entire colon removed. With the size of mine and how much pain I was having, you can develop what's called toxic mega colon, which will cut off your blood supply. And then it's pretty much a coin toss in surgery."
For whatever reason, though, the doctors decided not to have surgery and started treating the ulcerative colitis with a drug called Remicade, which was administered through an IV drip once a month, and the Prednisone corticosteroid.
"That first night I went to the emergency room, my parents found me in my room and I could barely talk," he said. "It was incredibly hard on them. They wouldn't leave me alone in the hospital. One of them slept there every night."
With the ulcers seemingly under control, Garner returned to Baylor in the fall and made it through about two-thirds of the semester before having to return to Austin and the hospital. The steroids were masking the problem, not curing it.
At that point, he had lost nearly 50 pounds, down to a gaunt 155. But once he started taking four Imuran prescription pills a day and giving himself a shot once a week, he's gained the weight back and is stronger than ever.
"Technically, it will be with me forever," said Garner, who returned to school and the baseball team in the fall. "There are a lot of advances coming out. They're expecting by three or four years from now to maybe not have a 100 percent cure, but to have three or four different options for people where you won't even have to think about it. And besides a couple stomach aches here and there, maybe when I get some bad food somewhere, I really haven't had any problems in a year now."
But that's just part of this story. It's miracle enough that he's survived the ulcerative colitis and is back in school. Just looking at the 6-foot-2, 190-pound sophomore, you would never guess he had gone through something so life-threatening.
What's maybe even more amazing, if possible, is that he's nowhere close to the pitcher he was before all the health issues. He's much better.
"He's throwing harder, his stuff's better, his presence is better," said Baylor coach Steve Smith. "I'm amazed. I wondered what a guy would be like after having gone through what he went through with his health. You've got to believe that if you come out on the other side of a situation like that, it's got to make you a better person. I think it's clearly made him a better person, a better man. I certainly don't worry about him at all going out on Olsen Field (for this weekend's series against fifth-ranked Texas A&M). He's faced things a lot tougher than that."
Garner, who is 2-1 with a 2.83 ERA, three saves and 25 strikeouts in 28.2 innings, contends that he's just matured as a pitcher.
"My freshman year, I was nervous a lot of the times when I was out there," said Garner, who was 0-0 with an inflated 9.31 ERA in 12 appearances as a freshman. "I didn't understand that you just needed to fill up the strike zone. What I went through put a completely different perspective on everything. I wasn't going to come back and mess around. I'm just really trying to be aggressive, and I just wasn't my freshman year."
After his near-death experience two summers ago, he goes to the mound with a no-fear approach that has served him well. He picked up his first career save on March 10, when he tossed 3.1 innings of masterful one-hit relief, his first win on March 25 against Kansas State and another win on Tuesday with two innings of shutout relief in a 9-4 victory over UTA. On Saturday, he faced the minimum number of batters in a sparkling 3.2-inning relief effort in a 12-1 win over fifth-ranked Texas A&M, giving up just one hit while striking out four.
"There's pretty much nothing on the field that's going to bother me as much as (the ulcerative colitis) did," he said, "except for that line drive that caught my elbow a couple weeks ago."
In his second flirt with death, Garner took a line-drive shot from Sam Houston State's Ryan Mooney off his right throwing elbow, with the screamer deflecting all the way into the outfield.
"I saw the ball, but I didn't actually see it moving," the sophomore right-hander said. "I just saw a white speck and I tucked. And I think that was what caused it to skim off me instead of hitting me and dropping dead. I thought I broke my elbow when it happened. They said it was 98 (mph) off the bat, and it caught me straight there (pointing to his elbow). It's still a little swollen, bruised, but it doesn't hurt to throw."
Once the tightness in the elbow subsided, Garner was back on the mound four days later and got the final out and his second save in last Saturday's 7-6 win over eighth-ranked Texas.
"You don't want to show any fear or anything that can let the offense think, `Oh, we've got this guy,''' Garner said. "You want to make it know that you're confident in what you can do."
In just three years, Baylor Athletics Chaplain Wes Yeary has seen the Kenya Sports Ministry Team nearly triple its numbers from an original traveling party of just 16 in May 2009 to the 45 that will make the trek back to Nairobi, Kenya next month.
"I know from (Baylor Athletic Director Ian McCaw's) standpoint and really all of us, our hope would be that every student-athlete would have a chance to experience missions in some form during their time here," said Yeary, who's leading a group that includes 35 current of former Baylor student-athletes on the two-week mission trip.
"So it is exciting when so many have such a positive experience that they come back and share with teammates, and they want to join in on that, as well as many that want to return and build on the experience that they had before and the relationships they've been able to cultivate."
Working through local ministry contacts Walter Machio, Boniface Mwalimu and Jonathan Wonjohi, Yeary has mapped out a mission trip that includes visits to the Lagranta Prison and Kizito Childcare Facility; building chicken houses and goat pens at the Omega Kids Home that Mwalimu is turning into a self-sustaining operation for getting kids off the streets; sports clinics and possibly even a soccer game against the Kenyan National team.
"Rather than being a one-time thing where we're kind of a flash of us being there and gone," Yeary said, "Baylor Missions really wants us to work in partnerships . . . and come alongside those partners and add to what they're doing or help them in building something they've been working on. That's the blessing of it is I just communicate with those partners and see what the greatest needs are and how we might help them."
Some of the plans for the group could depend on whether they're able to go into the slums of Mukuru, where they visited last year, and help them rebuild the homes that were destroyed in a devastating fire two months ago.
Two people were burnt to death and nearly 3,000 families were displaced after the fire spread quickly through the densely populated slums.
"All those kids that we worked with are homeless right now and have lost everything," Yeary said. "So we're kind of saying that we'll set aside some of these other things if we can actually participate in helping them in rebuilding or getting in a home once again."
Another project is going back to the village of Muranga, where last year's group washed the feet of villagers affected by the jigger infestation.
"Our hope is to be able to pour concrete in the huts where they're having these problems," Yeary said. "Last year, we dealt with the foot itself, but that's temporary. (Washing the feet) helps with the infection, but it doesn't prevent the jiggers from biting again. What we're trying to do is help in the long term. Whether they're shoeless or living on that dirt, the concrete can help them overcome that problem even better."
With right at a third of the group coming from Marci Jobson's soccer team, Yeary said the sports ministry team will be equipped to put on full-fledged soccer clinics and may also get the chance to play an "11-on-11 match" with the Kenyan National team, "which we haven't ever been able to do."
This year's ministry team roster includes 2009 senior Betsy Kyle and 14 players off the 2010 soccer team: senior Natalie Woodham, juniors Staz Salinas and Brittany Hunemuller, sophomores Larissa Campos, Carlie Davis, Caitlin Fennegan, Hanna Gilmore, Michelle Hagen, Dana Larsen and Lisa Sliwinski and freshmen Taylor Heatherly, Kat Ludlow, Selby Polley and Karlee Summey.
"Marci has such a special freshman group, just the closeness of that group, and really the sophomores, too," Yeary said. "We've got a lot of young ones going that are just excited to share the experience and do things together. They seem to jump into everything we've offered so far."
Yeary said the soccer team has the unique opportunity to have a team-bonding experience much like the baseball team's trip to Cuba a year ago, "just the impact it had on the whole team."
Along with team leaders Yeary and Kim Scott, women's basketball player Lindsay Palmer and football player Bryan Swindoll are making their third trip to Kenya. Ten others, including football's Terrance Ganaway, Jarred Salubi, Lanear Sampson and 2009 senior Andrew Judy, are making return trips after going last year.
That means 31 first-timers, including Baylor Senior Associate Athletic Director Tom Hill and his wife, Kristen, who are going as team leaders.
"It's just fun with that many more coming," Yeary said. "They bring a lot of enthusiasm and excitement. "While there have been moments when it's been tough to rein them all in (at the team meetings), it's also brought that much more enthusiasm and passion to it. And really, we're going to be able to do some projects that we haven't been able to do in the past and reach more while we're there. Instead of going to just one place or with one group, we're going to get to be able to split into groups and go to multiple sites, where hopefully we can impact that many more."
With the increased numbers of travelers also comes a steeper price. As of Wednesday, Yeary said the group had topped the $100,000 mark in fundraising, but "we're still about $40,000 short of our goal" to fully fund the trip by the May 4 deadline.
"That not only covers all of our travel expenses, but also all of the projects that we do while we're over there," said Yeary, who estimated that it's about $3,300 per person. "We're just sharing that opportunity for others to join us in the mission and allowing God to stir those hearts of people that would like to join in help our athletes have a life-impacting experience, as well as hopefully make a difference in the lives of all the people that we work with over there."
Yeary said the students are selling Kenya shirts "like crazy," at $10 per shirt (available in Yeary's office at the Simpson Athletics and Academic Center. But if you would like to make a significant gift, you can go online at https://www.baylor.edu/give/index.php?id=49837&a=3&f=08542A4.
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