Heart of the matter: West’s Sowers rebounding from near-death experience | Sports
TRAVERSE CITY – Karin Chrostek knows the data well. They’re burned into their minds.
These are the days when she almost lost the oldest of her three children.
Traverse City West softball player Kaci Sowers, Chrostek’s only daughter, nearly died 15 months ago.
Sowers returned to the line-up this spring after a significant time outside of the game, starting in three different spots for the 14-6-1 Titans, but the way back has not been easy.
It’s not over either.
In February 2020, Sowers suffered from a cardiac tamponade, in which fluid build-up around the heart compresses the heart and disrupts normal function. Within days of feeling sick, the Titans were on the verge of death and their organs were closed.
The power hitter didn’t lose hope through all this and softball turned out to be their light at the end of the tunnel.
February 27, 2020
Kaci told a coach that she didn’t feel well after a pitching lesson, although she thought the bullpen session was one of her best. A fever started.
The saw fever lasted two days while she was staying with her father. She had upper back pain, vomited, and spent the night on the bathroom floor.
Frustrated, she began to look for symptoms herself. When she searched for “upper back pain,” almost all of the results were related to heart problems.
When Sowers returned to her mother’s house, she had difficulty walking and passed out. She needed help getting into the house.
“I thought it was the flu,” said Chrostek.
It was not. The flu would have been preferable.
What infected Sowers was a virus. This happened just before the coronavirus spread to the US, but they later found out that COVID-19 wasn’t the culprit.
However, a similar viral infection resulted in a drastic overreaction of the Sowers immune system. She developed myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscles, which can also be a side effect of viruses in athletes.
The seeders’ bodies began to flood the sack that surrounded their hearts with fluid. The human heart typically has about 15 milliliters of protective fluid. You would later find out that Kaci was around 400 milliliters, and this was limiting the heart’s ability to function properly.
March 2, 2020
Chrostek takes her daughter to Traverse City for emergency care after she is dehydrated and weak. She had to carry Kaci over her back to get into the car and keep a window open so the wind in her face would keep her conscious.
To find out that the urgent care is not IV ready, go to the Munson Medical Center emergency room.
While he waits and fills out paperwork, Sowers’ body begins to shut down. You don’t know at the time, but she has organ failure. Your internal organs are shut down one by one.
“She just disappeared,” said Chrostek. “Her pupils dilated. She was trembling. She turned pale white.”
She remembers a nurse who approached and said, “This patient looks toxic.”
“I didn’t know I was near death,” Sowers said. “But I tried to stay alive.”
Chrostek recalls that the doctor there went white when he saw the images that were generated with ultrasound. A cloud of white liquid surrounded Kaci’s whole heart.
“I’ll never forget the doctor’s face,” said Chrostek. “He was in a panic.”
Doctors said the 15-year-old was too unstable to be flown to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids. They didn’t think she would live long enough to survive the 40-minute flight.
After some debate, Munson’s doctors decided to perform a paracardiocentisis to drain fluid from the heart. Munson is not a place for pediatric surgery, which starts the debate.
One of the risk factors listed in the procedural documents: “Death”.
“That gets your attention,” said Chrostek.
The paracardiocentisis removed four syringes of fluid from around Sowers’ heart. It stabilized them enough for the transport to DeVos.
“I think the doctors played it well by not telling us how hard it was,” said Chrostek.
Kaci was so drugged that she asked one of the helicopter crews for a souvenir t-shirt or “merch”.
“I just remember going into the room and having so many people around,” Sowers said. “They asked me about my pain level. I said ‘nine’ but it was probably more like a 10. That’s the athlete in me.”
Dr. Heather Sowinski was the cardiologist on duty when Sowers arrived at DeVos intensive care unit.
Another ultrasound showed there was no fluid but poor heart function.
“When she was in Munson, she was definitely close to dying,” said Sowinski.
Sowinski said Sowers had Coxsackie B virus, which can cause pericardial effusion, a buildup of fluid around the heart. It also led to myocarditis.
Recovery from myocarditis generally falls into one of three categories, each accounting for about a third of cases, Sowinski said. One group recovers within three months with remaining scars. The second group never recovers, but remains stable. The third continues to deteriorate and eventually needs a transplant.
Fortunately, Sowers fell into the first group. Sowinski said being young and athletic definitely helped recovery.
“It was a blessing and a curse,” said Sowinski. “She definitely had the personality that she would relax and be back on the field. But that worries some too.”
Sowers spent 10 days at DeVos before doctors thought she was healthy enough to return to Traverse City.
In layman’s terms, cardiac tamponade is similar to a severe heart attack in adults.
Kaci was not allowed to lift more than five pounds for three months. Softball bats weigh a little less than two pounds, but seemed a long way off.
It took six months to return, and Sowers had to pass a stress test before returning to the field.
That summer, she played limited games for the Grand Rapids elite travel team, despite losing seven mph on her fastball and bat speed dropping. After all, she almost died and lost 10 pounds in the process. She played in a tournament in July.
Sowers tried again for Elite in August but was concerned after an irregular heartbeat and instead chose to stay closer to home at TC Thunder, where former TC West trainer Kathy Breece leads the roster.
Irregular heartbeats still occur on seed drills.
“She definitely has a very competitive mind and was very determined to relax and do whatever she can to get back to softball,” said Sowinski.
Chrostek, then a 44-year-old preschool teacher at Long Lake Elementary, began a new career as a cardiac nurse at Munson after that experience. Learned enough from Kaci’s experience to impress during an interview for another position, she accepted an offer as a nurse and telemetry technician in the cardiac department last July.
Seed drills, who have always had an interest in and a talent for natural sciences and mathematics, now also want to enter the Herzfeld. This semester she is attending an anatomy course in West.
“That really got her focused,” said Chrostek.
An MRI one year after the trip to DeVos revealed scar tissue on Sowers’ left ventricle, which is unusual in teenagers. This carries a lifelong risk of arrhythmias.
Sowers had no pediatric cardiac rehabilitation centers in northern Michigan and was on his own. She and her mother had to figure out rehab for themselves and set limits on stressful activities, including caffeine intake.
“She was afraid she wouldn’t be the same softball player,” said Chrostek. “So she changed her priorities. She moved her academics. I think she’s having more fun with it. She identified herself as a softball player first and anything but second. That changed.”
Equally important is that Chrostek has her daughter back.
“I’m so glad that her hand is warm and her lips are pink,” said Chrostek. “It took so long to get this back.”
Things have obviously changed since 2019, when Sowers instantly became an everyday highlight for the Titans.
As a freshman, she hit six home runs – she played on one of the largest fields in northern Michigan – with 29 RBIs and 27 runs. She reached 0.337 with an OPS of 1.022, and averaged 2.29 on the mound.
Trying to get back to these levels after such a severe health crisis became another problem. Sowers put pressure on themselves to live up to their own expectations.
“I didn’t have the passion,” said Sowers. “I felt down. I felt like I wasn’t going to be as good as I was as a newbie. I mean, I was on the Dream Team for the Record-Eagle. I did six home runs.”
Two seasons later, after missing out on the 2020 campaign that coronavirus would have taken over anyway, she hits 18 games with a home run and 11 RBIs, 22 runs and nine stolen bases .214 to compete in Saturday’s competitions at Saginaw Swan Valley to participate. She has also beaten 29 batters in 14.2 innings with a 3-1 record in five games (a relief appearance) as the Titans’ third pitcher. She was 3 against 9 with an RBI, two runs and a theft in Saginaw on Saturday and came second.
Titans head coach Dave Kenny affectionately calls Sowers “dog”.
“It may or may not be what it was two years ago,” said TC West softball coach Dave Kenny, “but I think it will be. It will be.”
The competitive junior plays midfield when Bell Gulliver is on the court and third base when Brittany Steimel takes the hill.
“She’s a die-hard player,” said Kenny. “She comes in to win. She loves her teammates. When she’s on the ground, she always looks for the theft mark. If she doesn’t get it, she looks at me.”
Sowers said her team and coaches, in addition to family, were there every step of the way to support her.
“I’m still trying to work hard and be the player I used to be,” said Sowers. “I’m just happier to play this sport and to be in the moment. I’m grateful for the experience. It made me realize how strong I am. It will always be with me.”