Gorman in winning form
Former N-G pitcher Joey Gorman in throes of battling brain disorder
WHILE HIS SAINT Joseph's University teammates prepared under a beautiful blue sky for last Friday's baseball game against La Salle, sophomore Joey Gorman was stuck indoors, practicing simple tasks that his twice-operated-on brain once cycled through automatically.
With dark tufts of hair spilling from his black Chicago White Sox hat - which also obscured the 6- to 8-inch scar that runs from the back of his neck to the middle of his head - Gorman walked heel-to-toe while tossing a ball above his head from hand-to-hand.
This was an orange plastic ball, not one of white, stitched leather that the former Ss. Neumann-Goretti High pitching standout had grown accustomed to wielding. Clad in a crimson T-shirt inscribed with "Losing Is Not An Option," Gorman bobbled the ball and then quipped as it hit the floor.
"Oops," he said at the Magee Rehabilitation Hospital on South Columbus Boulevard, "E-1."
Gorman hasn't thrown a pitch in nearly 2 years, and despite four surgeries and a slew of complications, his goal is to command the mound yet again.
Most of the clientele that day suffered from various maladies and were by far Gorman's senior, a reality that might dampen any athlete's spirit. But . . .
"Everything happens for a reason," Gorman said. "In the beginning, was I blaming God and everyone in sight, yeah, definitely, but there are a lot of people that have it way worse."
What he had was a Chiari malformation (CM), characterized by the National Institute of Neurological Disorder and Stroke as "a structural defect in the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls balance."
Part of afflicted cerebellums, which reside at the base of the brain, descend out of the skull and crowd the spinal cord, putting pressure on the brain and spine and causing various symptoms, according to ConquerChiari.org, part of the nonprofit organization, the C&S Patient Education Foundation.
In the past, CM was estimated in about one in every 1,000 births. However, improved testing has led to more frequent diagnosis. Gorman's condition was discovered during a sinus scan when he was 12 years old. Once-a-year checkups were prescribed and, at around 16, it was believed he would remain symptom-free as some with CM do.
That was until an October 2012 weightlifting session during his freshman year with the Hawks changed everything.
"I pushed out and lost feeling in my legs and arms," Gorman said. "I don't remember much after that. I really had no clue what was going on."
He slipped in and out of consciousness while waiting for an ambulance.
"I was pretty scared," he said. "It's weird talking about it now, but it was a blessing in disguise."
Gorman was told the lower part of his cerebellum - the tonsils - had dipped too low into the spinal cavity and wreaked havoc on his body.
"It was pretty scary that day, but fortunately it happened at school where a bunch of people could take care of me," he said. "Could have been worse if I had gotten into a car accident."
His first brain surgery was in November of that year and was followed by ulnar nerve complications in his left, pitching arm, which still sports a "J-shaped" scar from two surgeries. Brain surgery No. 2 came in May of 2013 and resulted in two, 2-week hospital stays for aseptic meningitis and then a severe reaction to prescribed steroids. Gastrointestinal issues, another side effect of the surgery, also made eating a challenge and swollen and painful joints left him in agony.
"Wiped me out," Gorman said. "It was brutal. I never like to complain. That's just an athlete's mentality. You never want to show any kind of weakness."
He held that mindset at N-G, where he helped the Saints to two Catholic League titles and two City titles. After winning Daily News Pitcher of the Year as a junior, Gorman's body broke down and, unbeknownst to him and his family, the worsening CM was the culprit.
Double vision, severe headaches, lower-back pain and two dislodged ribs marred much of his final season.
"You don't really know how you get the strength to go through it," said his mom, Cathy. "Some people see him around the neighborhood now and think, 'Oh, he's OK,' but they don't really know what he went through and what he still goes through."
Back at rehab, the pace is measured. Dizziness, disorientation and fatigue are expected, but can become serious setbacks. Gorman stepped onto a treadmill and watched as traffic zoomed past a window facing South Columbus Boulevard. After previous attempts were made with the shades drawn, the window was unobscured to gauge his progress. His brain, which once quickly deciphered moving stimuli, still needed time to calibrate.
"Seasick," is how he described the feeling after he finished. "It's really odd. I'm not moving, I'm sitting still, but you still feel like you're off balance."
Not exactly conducive to pitching from an elevated mound as an opponent twirls his bat, the umpire and catcher squat in unison and fans chatter in the background. And that doesn't even include the brain power required to effectively outthink each hitter.
But Gorman remains undeterred and hopes to be back next season.
"I did say, 'Why me?' a lot," he said. "Why me? What did I do? And that's what everybody does. They want to find out why. But when I think about it now, why not me? Everybody goes through something. Everybody has their own story."
The 20-year-old from the corner of Third and Ritner streets in South Philly hopes his next chapter starts on the mound. He hasn't thrown a pitch since his last game at N-G. Doctors have cleared him physically, but managing the symptoms of recovery is the next obstacle. He dresses and attends some games, but the stimuli in the stadium and dugout can be overwhelming.
"I want to come back and make St. Joe's proud for keeping me," Gorman said. "They stuck with me at my lowest. I'm not playing for myself when I get back out there. There's a ton of people who had my back and carried me through."
His mom, Cathy, dad, Joe, younger brother, Matt, and older sister, Christa, are among many Gormans singled out along with Kaylie Barnes, his girlfriend of 2 years. Academically, he carries a full-time work load and even earned a 3.6 GPA during the spring semester of his freshman year.
A family friend made the T-shirt: "Losing Is Not An Option." Gorman used to scrawl those exact words underneath his N-G hat. He said that to his surprise, that slogan had been used by certain CM support groups.
"I want to play today, but I accept that it's not what I'm meant to be doing right now," Gorman said. "I have to come back a new person, a better person.
"Don't take no for an answer. Now that the doctors say I'm good to go, I need to have the mentality that I'm healthy, I'm better. Nothing will stop me and I have tons of people that are helping me. I can't do it myself, but I'm not going to lose. It's not going to beat me."