After finishing his last at-bat near the end of a two-hour evening practice on July 14 at the Greater Manassas Baseball League complex, Steve Smith headed to second for a base-stealing drill. The exercise was a routine part of the Manassas Blue and Gray’s practice schedule, and Smith had done it many times before.
As soon as the pitcher threw the ball to the next batter, Smith took off running, so intent on beating the catcher’s throw to third he never saw the ball that would accidentally hit him in the heart on his left side just below his arm pit.
Wearing shorts, Smith never planned on sliding through the dirt into third, but then there was no reason to. On the surface, the contact from the ball seemed harmless. It might leave a bruise, but nothing more. Plus if the ball had hit the 18-year-old’s heart at any other moment, he would have been fine.
In this instance, though, the ball struck Smith’s heart at the most inopportune time. In a window of less than a second during that particular phase of the heart rhythm, the ball’s impact, given its velocity, caused a disruption in Smith’s heartbeat and sent him into cardiac arrest. The rare condition, known as commotio cordis, left Smith fighting for his life.
Smith was eight to 10 feet away from third when still upright he stumbled forward and then fell into the arms of assistant coach Tim Heisler. Heisler turned Smith over and laid him on the ground as everyone stopped what they were doing and gathered around Smith.
Smith’s father Tim, the team’s head coach, ran from home plate and asked if anyone knew CPR.
Right fielder Paul Dow said he did, although he had never administered CPR to someone in need.
As prayers enveloped Smith and six people called 911, Dow ignored fear and doubt and stepped in without reservation. He didn’t focus on how the survival rate without an electrical shock to the heart was typically 3 to 5 percent for someone beyond three minutes. Or that Smith might have brain damage even if he did survive. Or during his training to be a lifeguard at the Sudley Club in Manassas that he’d failed his CPR test three months earlier before retaking it again just hours later and passing. Only one thing mattered right then.
“I’m not sure how many compressions I did,” Dow said. “I just kept having a conversation with God, believing [Smith] would be OK.”
Dow knew Smith was dying. Smith’s eyes had rolled back in his head and he had no pulse. For just over 10 minutes, Dow gave Smith mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and pushed on his chest, reminding himself who was really in charge.
“I could not have done that by myself,” Dow said. “No way with a 3 percent chance of living. Obviously someone else was helping me. God was there.”
Dow’s actions saved Smith’s life.
The first 911 call went out at 8:14 p.m., but the ambulance didn’t arrive at the field until 8:30 p.m. Fearing the ambulance might not get there in time, Smith was put in the back of his father’s pick-up truck to take him to the hospital. When Tim Smith drove the truck down to the parking lot, the ambulance arrived. The EMT’s placed the defibrillator on Smith and soon had a pulse. But the teenager was not out of danger yet.
The ambulance drove Smith to Manassas Regional Airport, where a helicopter airlifted him to Inova Fairfax Hospital. Dow and his teammates, meanwhile, went to the Seton School chapel in Manassas and continued to lift Smith up in prayer.
At Inova, Smith was placed in a medically-induced coma late Thursday night to slow his heart rate. By Friday night, Smith’s temperature was 93 degrees and by Saturday morning at 7 it was back to normal.
Still, Smith’s family wasn’t sure what to expect when Smith woke up around 8. The nurse asked Smith to give her a thumbs up if he understood her. Smith did. He also wiggled his toes.
“It was pretty dramatic,” Tim Smith said.
Smith was taken off the ventilator by noon Saturday and was released from the hospital Monday with no memory or any physical reminders of his injury. In fact, the last thing he remembered from that day was arriving at practice.
He knew he couldn’t play, but after leaving the hospital, Smith wanted to visit his teammates who were preparing for a regional tournament in North Carolina later that week. Practice ended up being cancelled because of rain, but Smith still went and made an impression. His teammates were shocked to see him walking in as if the life-threatening event five days earlier didn’t happen.
One teammate came up to Smith and poked him in the chest to make sure Smith was indeed standing there.
“I laughed because I felt fine,” Smith said. “It did not bother me. I expected it once I heard the story.”
The experience has impacted Smith and Dow’s relationship. First connected through baseball, the two have known each other since childhood. They also attended Seton for a year before Dow left after the seventh grade and enrolled at nearby Holy Family.
“We were close friends, but now we are like brothers,” said Dow, a rising senior at Holy Family.
Smith, a 2016 Seton graduate, has been cleared to play baseball this fall at Belmont Abbey College just outside Charlotte, North Carolina. Smith is still amazed by his recovery. His father calls it a gift from God. Dow calls Smith a miracle walker.
“I feel so blessed. I should not be here. I am and there is a bigger reason for me to be here,” Smith said.