Reds' Gomes survives brushes with death

PHILADELPHIA – It is Christmas eve in 2002 and Jonny Gomes(notes), a professional baseball player on the verge of making the major leagues, is lying on a gurney in a Petaluma, Calif., hospital, doctors standing above him with defibrillation paddles. Years later, he will still remember those paddles “all lubed up and ready to rock,” and he will still wonder how it all happened. How a doctor was saying that Gomes, at 22, was having a heart attack.

And Gomes, so fearless as the Cincinnati Reds left fielder that he wears his hair in a Mohawk and burns reckless across the grass, stared in shock and suddenly felt very afraid.

“It freaked me out,” he said.

He should be dead, not starting in the National League Division Series against the Philadelphia Phillies. Maybe a lesser man would be gone, one who had not built his body so strong and who had endured a childhood he calls not “exactly the Brady Bunch.” Always resilient, that’s what everyone said about him. But Gomes survived his heart attack for 27 hours without knowing what it was, shaking off all the classic symptoms – the pressure on his chest, the tingling in his arms.

[Photos: More of Gomes and his wild hairdo]

He brushed away the pain as soreness from a workout. He ate Mexican food with his brother that night. He thought what he felt was indigestion. He sat in a chair and started to doze, suddenly jerking awake and realizing that he had fallen asleep without being tired. He didn’t feel right. Still he didn’t want “to be the Grinch of Christmas Eve.” He refused to go to the hospital until at last his mother, Michelle, insisted.

Then after a couple hours of waiting, an EKG test showed what couldn’t be possible. And the paddles were pulled out and the doctor said the words that still startled him all these years later in the Reds clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park: “If you had fallen asleep one more time, you wouldn’t have woken up.”

Standing this week behind a chair at his locker, Gomes looked to the floor and shook his head.

Mornings are always the best now, he said. Mornings always bring the sun and hope and a realization that he is still alive.

“A lot of people don’t know that just waking up is a blessing,” he said.

He thinks a lot about purpose. This is what happens when you have a heart attack for more than a day and live to tell about it. He thinks this too whenever he remembers the car accident in high school, the one that came the night he flipped a coin with his best friend, Adam Westcott, to see who would get the seat on the left and the seat on the right. Adam won, picked his seat, then died as the car skidded out of control, flying into a tree. Gomes, in the other seat, walked away.

[Rewind: Another athlete's health scare after locker room seizure]

“Heads or tails,” Gomes said softly, as if something so trivial could choose who lives or dies.

And anyone who thinks the Reds don’t stand a chance against the mighty Phillies in these playoffs, who look at Philadelphia’s army of elite starting pitchers and figures Cincinnati to be outclassed, doesn’t understand the determination of their left fielder, a player who looked around the clubhouse and decided that most of his teammates had not risen here easily. Most of them are survivors, just like him.

“You call upon your past to deal with your present,” Reds manager Dusty Baker said Tuesday. No one in this clubhouse proves that like Jonny Gomes.

His mother, Michelle Gomes, understands. She spent her childhood yearning for the day she could graduate high school, get married and have children. She graduated in June, 1979, and by October was pregnant with Jonny’s older brother, Joey. A year later, she had Jonny. “Babies having babies,” she calls that time. Not long after she was divorced and left with two sons to raise by herself.

She did this the best she could. But jobs were hard to get and she had to fight to provide whatever she could. They didn’t have the money Jonny’s friends did at school. And yet she endured. Once, at a particularly low time, while working the graveyard shift as a cashier at a gas station, she was trying to qualify for a subsidized housing program.

The woman at the agency said she would be eligible only if she could establish she lived in dire circumstances, Michelle Gomes remembered. Dire meant moving into a homeless shelter for three weeks.

“It wasn’t easy,” she said in a telephone interview from her home outside Scottsdale, Ariz. near where Jonny now lives and where she volunteers at a food bank. “It was humiliating, it was embarrassing and it was nothing I want to repeat. But it was also good. Everyone had chores they had to do.”

She arranged for her boys to sleep at friends’ homes those three weeks, sparing them the shame of living in a shelter, though they still had to rise early and come down at 5 a.m. to perform the required tasks. All around her, she said, were people who seemed content with their arrangements. This horrified her and it solidified in her a will to get out and move on as fast as she could.

She thinks it instilled a thirst in her boys to succeed.

Then two years later came the car accident. And four years after that, the heart attack.

It’s hard to say which of these was worse for Michelle. Jonny called her from outside the car after the accident, trying not to alarm her even as he knew his friend was severely injured. He fretted as the ambulance pulled up that she didn’t have insurance and he couldn’t afford to be taken to the hospital. And not wanting anyone else to deliver the news of the wreck to Westcott’s father, he asked her to drive to Westcott’s home, wake the father herself and tell him there had been an accident.

The heart attack stunned her. He was in such great health. “Immediately when you have a heart attack at 22, people think, ‘It must be drugs or steroids,’ ” she said, “but they tested him and cleared him of all that.”

In fact, the doctors still don’t know why Gomes had a heart attack. They know what happened, a coronary artery was pinched. But they don’t know how it happened or why. Perhaps now it doesn’t matter.

“It definitely makes me realize your next breath is never guaranteed,” he said. “It makes me think a lot that somebody wants me here and has given me the personality that I have now, just being outgoing and bubbly and always upbeat.”

And happy to be alive.