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For George School coach, nasty blow was a blessing in disguise

He hit fly balls to the outfielders.

He hit fly balls to the outfielders.

He pitched batting practice.

The next thing John Gleeson remembers - six days later - he was in a hospital.

What happened in between would be one of what Gleeson calls the most memorable times of his life, if only he could recall any of it.

A baseball struck the 62-year-old coach in the head during a George School practice. He went into cardiac arrest, his heart stopped for a few minutes, he was unconscious for about 12 hours, and he underwent quintuple-bypass heart surgery.

Whether the head injury and heart attack are connected remains a mystery. Meanwhile, Gleeson, co-coach of the team and a longtime English teacher at the Bucks County school, is on medical leave and back home, a month after the surgery. He wears a defibrillator vest, and gradually is increasing his physical activity.

"God was looking out for him," Vince Campellone, who shares coaching duties with Gleeson, said last week.

Campellone meant that two ways. Gleeson was stricken while he was around people who could get him help, and the help - an athletic trainer with an automated external defibrillator - was nearby.

On May 3, Gleeson was throwing batting practice in the left-field batting cage. Standing about 45 feet from the batter, shielded by an L-shaped screen commonly used by teams, Gleeson was pitching to Jake Skolnick - "our hardest hitter," Campellone said. Campellone then heard the clang of a line drive hitting a bar of the screen.

Turning toward the cage, Campellone saw Gleeson facedown on the ground, his body twitching. Campellone ran over and yelled for players to get the trainer. Campellone rolled Gleeson onto his back, opened his mouth, and made sure he wouldn't swallow his tongue.

Tyler Campellone, Vince's son and a sophomore outfielder on the team who recently took a CPR course, started resuscitation. Trainer Juana Bivins ran over from the gym behind center field, and used the defibrillator on Gleeson. A student trainer called Gleeson's wife, Connie, who works at the school's Children's Center, and she arrived just in time to see a shock from the defibrillator jump-start his heart.

Connie Gleeson estimates that because of the quick treatment, her husband's heart was stopped for only about three minutes.

"It was very fortuitous the way that things fell," John Gleeson said. "I could have been [at home] mowing the grass all by myself and had my blocked arteries kicked in, and I would have been in pretty bad shape because there would have been no one around. As it was, getting hit in the head with a line drive was almost a blessing in disguise, because it kicked off this whole series of things."

Gleeson was rushed to the nearby St. Mary Medical Center. Five of his arteries were blocked.

"Which is, I'm afraid, a family gift," he said. "My father died at 59 of a heart attack. My grandfather died at 64 or 63 of a heart attack. My dad was a heavy smoker. My grandfather was a heavy smoker.

"I had never smoked in my life; I was so involved in athletics. So I thought I had beaten the odds on that one. But genetically, I guess, I was predisposed."

Gleeson doesn't remember the May 7 surgery, although his wife said he gave the OK for it. He recalls being at that Monday practice that week, but his next memory isn't until the following Sunday. He remembers his nurses from that day, and what they told him to do. Connie Gleeson said doctors attributed the memory loss to the head injury.

John Gleeson has coached at George School for 41 years. He has been head football coach for 24 years, and is in his first season as varsity co-coach in baseball after more than 30 years as junior-varsity coach. His son, Dylan, is a junior catcher on the team, and a wide receiver and defensive back in football. One of the reasons John Gleeson requested a promotion to the baseball varsity was to coach his son and watch him play.

Gleeson said he underwent a nuclear stress test about five years ago, and another about five years before that. He said that he also has seen his family physician and that he takes medication to control his cholesterol level.

About a week before the incident, he woke up with severe heartburn.

"He looked it up on Google," Connie Gleeson recalled, "and said, 'Well, I could be having a heart attack or heartburn. I think I'll go with heartburn.' "

Speaking of the incident with both wonderment and humor, Gleeson still isn't sure how the ball struck his head. The L-shaped screen is designed to shield the pitcher - the high side tall enough to protect the entire body, the lower side allowing for the arm to release the ball. And he routinely ducks behind the high part after throwing the pitch.

But the purpose of batting practice is to simulate the speed of the pitch that the hitter will face during a game, and obviously, at 62, Gleeson can't throw as hard as a teenager. So, instead of throwing from the usual 60 feet, 6 inches, he estimates he pitches batting practice only about 40 or 45 feet from the hitter. That makes him more vulnerable, especially considering the aluminum bats.

Because of the incident, George School is enacting a rule that coaches who throw batting practice must wear helmets, said George Long, boys' athletic director for the school.

Gleeson says he never experienced any ache from the shot to the temple. His wife said the impact left a big, red mark.

"But even that faded pretty quickly," Connie Gleeson said. "It was almost like it tagged him enough to draw our attention to his other, really big problem."

How related the problems are is unclear.

Dr. Todd Nixon, who performed the surgery, said that Gleeson had significant coronary artery disease and that the notion of a shot to the head making him "fibrillate and pass out . . . is a little weird."

"With the coronary disease that he had," Nixon said, "he probably could have fibrillated or had a heart attack at any time. A hit in the head doesn't usually trigger a heart attack."

Gleeson wants to return to coaching this fall for his son's last football season, saying he has dreamed about it for a long time. If his heart exams go well, he could be ready for the mid-August start of practices. But if doctors say he needs a defibrillator implanted, he likely will miss the opening of the preseason.

Admittedly "not a laid-back coach," in past years Gleeson jumped into practice to play quarterback. And he says he once picked up the team's biggest player, a 270-pounder, and carried him for 10 yards before tackling him to prove to his players that they, too, can take down someone 100 pounds heavier if they use proper form.

Those days, he insists, are behind him.

As for Skolnick, the player who hit the fateful line drive, Gleeson said the senior went through the instinctual "Oh, my God, what have I done?" phase.

"But as I've told him and everybody has told him since," Gleeson added, "it was a blessing in disguise, that in some ways you set off a series of events that probably will prolong my life for quite a while."