AS SHE SAT on the concrete steps outside Easton Stadium, her bright blonde hair wrapped in an oversized bow and a black bat bag slung over her shoulder, Stevie Wisz began to accept the obvious: She wasn't going to play softball for UCLA.
Three times now she had arrived on the stadium steps for her tryout and all three times no one from the UCLA program had shown up.
"I was over it," she said. "Embarrassed. I just wanted to leave."
Her first five months as a UCLA freshman had been a nightmare. After growing up three hours north in the rural town of Orcutt, she felt like she didn't fit in Westwood. She had struggled to make friends, often sitting in quiet corners of campus sobbing, wondering how she could have been so wrong about the only school that had ever felt right.
This was UCLA, the place that saved her life, after all. Softball was the game that had given her purpose. A self-described "mediocre" high school player, she had never played elite travel ball. But that hadn't stopped her from pestering the Bruins' coaches with emails begging for a tryout. They agreed. But now they had stood her up three different times. As she got up to leave, she heard a voice on the stadium concourse.
"Stevie?" the voice said. "Is that you?"
THE PEDIATRICIAN APPOINTMENT began like any other checkup for a 1-year-old. Measurements for height, weight and head circumference. But when the doctor placed his stethoscope on tiny Stevie Wisz's heart, he didn't like what he heard. "Weird," recalls Melissa Wisz, Stevie's mom. "He said it sounded 'weird.'"
X-rays revealed Wisz had an enlarged heart. The doctor immediately sent Stevie and her mom to a pediatric cardiologist 40 miles away in San Luis Obispo. It was a dreadful coincidence. Two months earlier, Melissa's 17-day-old son, Hunter, had died at that same hospital because of complications from Potter syndrome, a rare birth disorder. Now she found herself rushing to the same hospital with her daughter because of a heart issue. "I just remember thinking, 'What is going on, God? Please don't do this to me again,'" Melissa said.
In San Luis Obispo, doctors diagnosed Stevie with aortic stenosis, the severe narrowing of the aorta as it branches out from the heart. Stevie's aortic valve was one-sixteenth the size it should have been. With such a narrow passageway, much of the blood her heart was pumping was leaking back into the heart chamber, meaning her heart had to work that much harder to pump blood throughout her body.
Wisz would eventually need open-heart surgery to save her life. But the doctors suggested postponing the surgery as long as possible to allow the heart to grow closer to its full size. They would keep an eye on Wisz through regular checkups. Over the next several years, she lived like many other little girls, competing in soccer, basketball and track. In a fourth-grade track meet, she remembers running as hard as she could but finishing a distant last. "That was the first time I remember thinking I was different," she said.
Over time, the blood leaking back into her heart went from a mild problem to moderate to severe. By the summer of 2006, after fourth grade, doctors said it was time for surgery.
On that August day at UCLA Medical Center, nurses pushed 9-year-old Stevie's stretcher to the operating room as her mom and dad walked alongside her. Melissa squeezed Stevie's hand. A nurse promised to call with updates. They said goodbye. The stretcher rolled through the double doors. And she was gone.
For nine hours, the Wiszes tried to keep their minds occupied. It was impossible, especially with the updates. The first incision. The cracking of the breastbone. The heart-lung machine. In the operating room, doctors discovered Stevie suffered from heterotaxy, a birth defect that created a hole between the chambers of her heart. They repaired that in addition to cleaning and widening her aortic valve.
The surgery was successful, albeit a temporary solution. In a few years, she'd need another open-heart surgery to insert either a pig valve or an artificial one into her aorta. And doctors told her she could no longer play soccer, basketball or any other sport requiring endurance. She focused on softball.
"If you were to look at me, you never would have known what was going on," she said. "But I knew. I was so self-conscious and insecure. Sports was my life. I had to play something. I wanted to prove I could do it."
AFTER HEARING HER name that day on the Easton Stadium stairs, Wisz stood up and met UCLA team administrator Claire Donyanavard. Donyanavard escorted Wisz up a back ramp to the field, where a handful of UCLA players gathered before practice. Assistant coach Lisa Fernandez and head coach Kelly Inouye-Perez introduced themselves. Inouye-Perez took one look at Wisz in her hair bow, nose ring and purple "W" visor from high school and offered a few suggestions.
"First thing she ever said to me," Wisz said. "'We don't wear bows here. We don't wear nose rings.' And then she told me to take off my visor because she thought it was a Washington visor. They handed me a UCLA hat. I was so intimidated."
Fernandez sent Wisz to join a hitting group facing pitcher Selina Ta'amilo. Then she put her in the outfield, peppering balls from left to right, forcing Wisz to sprint back and forth to show her tracking abilities. Fernandez then timed Wisz running the bases. When the tryout was over, Fernandez said she'd be in touch. But an impression had been made. "She just had this ray of light," Fernandez said. "The brightness in her eyes, on her face. The smile. The positive energy. Anyone who has ever met her knows she has this great presence. Then you hear her story and it was just like, 'Wow, what can this kid potentially do for us?'"
Wisz's answer was simple: Whatever they wanted. She'd be a manager. A practice player. She'd feed balls into the pitching machine. Cut game film. Shag fly balls. Whatever. A few days later, UCLA invited Wisz to join the team as a practice player. She agreed, but before and after practice, she wouldn't go into the players' clubhouse. "I was so awkward," she said. "The girls must have thought I was such a weirdo."
"She was so worried about overstepping her boundaries," said Kylee Perez, a former UCLA All-Pac 12 infielder. "I'd literally have to go out there and get her, tell her she's part of the team. 'Come hang out with us.'"
Wisz didn't travel with the team for the opening tournament of the 2016 season in Texas. But after several Bruins contracted food poisoning that weekend and the team was left without a pinch runner, Perez approached Inouye-Perez about adding Wisz to the roster. The following week, 20 minutes before the team bus left for a tournament in Palm Springs, doctors medically cleared Wisz to travel and officially join the team.
"My uniform was like an extra-large. We had to triple-roll my pants," she said. "But I didn't care."
LATE IN THE summer of 2007, a year after Wisz's first open-heart surgery, Stevie and her mom were shopping for back-to-school clothes when Melissa Wisz's cellphone rang. Three days earlier, doctors had asked Stevie to wear a 24-hour heart monitor to keep an eye on her progress. The data revealed Stevie's heart was stopping multiple times a night, for as long as nine seconds at a time. Doctors implored Melissa to get Stevie, then 10, to UCLA as soon as possible so doctors could install a pacemaker.
"I would hear her coughing all the time at night, but never really thought anything of it," Melissa said. "Turns out that was her body rebooting itself."
Steve Wisz, Stevie's dad, packed a bag and raced to the strip mall to pick up his wife and daughter. They sped to UCLA, where nurses again rolled Stevie into the operating room so doctors could install a pacemaker. It had nothing to do with her previous operation or her condition.
"No one is ever prepared for a phone call like that," Melissa said. "It was basically bad luck."
Five years later, when Wisz was 15, the leakage in her aorta again became severe, forcing another open-heart surgery. This time, her heart was large enough that doctors could install a pig valve to improve the blood flow. It was a 13-hour procedure. She was older, wiser. She understood the risks. "I cried all the way down to the hospital," she said.
But each trip to UCLA Medical Center brought with it a trip to the bookstore for new UCLA swag. And further confirmation that she would one day be a Bruin herself.
"It was never a question," she said.
After the surgery, Wisz spent seven days in intensive care recovery. During one of those days, she suddenly couldn't breathe. She began coughing uncontrollably. Gasping for air, she sat straight up in her bed and looked at her mom for help. Buzzers and alarms went off. Doctors and nurses sprinted into the room, knocked Wisz out and placed a tube down her throat to suck out the phlegm that had clogged her passageway. One of her lungs had collapsed.
"She had such a look of fear in her eyes," Melissa said. "I was so scared. And I just kept thinking, 'What else are they going to put my daughter through?'"
Wisz would return to school in a wheelchair and, over a span of several months, eventually make a full recovery. Doctors told her the new valve would last 10 to 12 years. But it would survive barely half that long.
NOW 21, STEVIE Wisz has reached a point where her heart is 100 percent reliant on her pacemaker. If the pacemaker stops, she collapses. The leakage in her aorta is again severe. And yet she's a Division I athlete who every day tries to push her body to its own unique limits. In last year's Women's College World Series, she leapt at the fence to rob Florida's Janell Wheaton of a go-ahead home run. In April, she made a face-first, diving catch on a sinking liner against Cal, preserving a 1-0 UCLA victory.
"You have to understand," Kylee Perez said. "Stevie isn't someone who is just going to give up."
Said Wisz: "I don't like being told not to do something. Or that I can't do something."
It isn't stubbornness, competitiveness or an insecurity-fueled need to prove she can hang on one of the best softball teams in the country. That's all true, but more important, she needs to prove to herself that she's OK. It's what frees her from the stress and anxiety that come with the every-second knowledge that her heart is leaking blood and beating only because of an electronic device implanted in her chest. If she can complete the hardest of workouts, she doesn't need to worry when her heart flutters as she walks to class. Or when she struggles to keep up with teammates climbing a set of stairs. She knows she's fine.
Two of her own doctors, plus the UCLA team doctor, have medically cleared her to play. But during a "Champ Camp" offseason workout last fall, during which the players give everything they have in a particular exercise for 12 straight minutes, Wisz's cheeks flushed, and a couple of teammates said they saw her eyes roll back in her head. They freaked. Perez went to Inouye-Perez, and they sat down with Wisz for an intervention of sorts.
"It's never a question of how hard she's working," said Perez, who played with diabetes before graduating last year. "We just pulled her aside to tell her, 'We know you're working hard. And we appreciate that you want to keep going, but we love you and care about you far more than finishing a workout.'"
Said Wisz: "Sometimes I guess my pride just gets in the way. I don't like feeling like I'm not good enough. But I just try to remind myself it doesn't make any sense to overwork my heart. That's just going to push my next surgery even sooner."
AS THE UNFAMILIAR doctor walked into the examination room this past January, Wisz could tell something was wrong. "You could just see the look on his face," she said. "His assistant was nervous. You just knew."
The leaking in the aorta was again severe, so her longtime cardiologist had sent her to see a cardiac surgeon at USC, a pioneer in the field of valve repairs, specifically a procedure in which the pulmonary valve is transplanted to the aorta and, in Wisz's case, a pig valve is inserted into the pulmonary position.
The doctor had put Wisz through a series of tests that day and now had sobering news: She needed another surgery as soon as possible. As in the next opening on his schedule. Wisz began to cry. What about her senior season? Her teammates? Finishing her degree at UCLA? "He was blown away that I could even live the way my heart is, not to mention be a Division I athlete," Wisz said.
Added Melissa Wisz: "He made it seem like she was going to drop dead. He told her she didn't even know what feeling good felt like. This would be life-changing for her."
The doctor wasn't wrong. He was going by the book on what the test results told him. But Melissa explained that her daughter's case wasn't normal. Stevie had seen two different doctors every three months since she was a 1-year-old. Nothing had changed with her heart since her previous checkup. This was a second opinion.
Eventually, Steve Wisz asked the question everyone in the room was thinking: What would happen if the valve blew? Would Stevie drop dead? The doctor said no. She'd feel faint, short of breath, like she wasn't getting enough oxygen. Then she'd need to see him right away.
Eventually, a compromise was reached: Wisz agreed to limit the intensity of her workouts, and the doctor agreed she could wait until one week after graduation -- two weeks after a potential Women's College World Series final -- to have surgery.
"We told her we would support her with whatever she wanted to do, but it was her decision," Steve Wisz said. "She was emphatic. 'I'm not missing school. And I'm not missing softball.'"
Driving back to her apartment, Wisz cried. Her mind raced. What if the doctor was right? What if she was taking too many risks? What if she shouldn't play softball again? Or wait for graduation? A week later, she went to her longtime cardiologist. He assured her nothing had changed. He told her to relax. Play. And enjoy the final few months of her college career.
"I give so much of my life to that team and they give so much to me, I didn't want to miss out," she said. "Not just the game, but the memories."
IT WOULD BE easy to look up Stevie Wisz's statistics in her four seasons at UCLA and assume she hasn't played much of a role in the Bruins' 192-42-1 record over that span. In four years, she has had three at-bats, one hit. She's stolen a base and scored 23 runs. She's appeared as a defensive replacement in fewer than half of UCLA's games. But her impact on the program is far greater than numbers.
"She is a very important cog in this wheel," Inouye-Perez said. "Without her in that spot, we go nowhere. She puts the team before herself. She helps girls going through hard times. She's the glue of UCLA softball, always giving unconditionally without expecting anything in return."
Added Fernandez: "She could have gone somewhere else and started somewhere else, but there was a bigger picture she was after. She wanted to represent the people who gave her life. She will forever be remembered as the definition of what it means to be a Bruin."
At the UCLA team banquet earlier this month, Wisz stood behind a dais and tried to explain what it all has meant to her. She thanked the trainers, managers, teammates, friends and family. Then she turned to her coaches. Tears began to fall. Her voice cracked.
"Thank you for giving me the opportunity and changing my life," she said. "Thanks for seeing the light in me that I don't often see in myself. I'm super blessed. Thanks for giving me my best friends and turning my life around. I'm just so grateful for all you guys have provided me."
Each day that passes this spring, each victory that draws the Bruins one step closer to the Women's College World Series, brings Wisz's college playing career closer to an end -- and closer to yet another open-heart surgery. She had circled the dates for months now. June 3-5 is the championship series, a destination UCLA has not reached since winning its most recent national championship, in 2010. June 13 is the day Wisz will walk across the Pauley Pavilion stage and receive a bachelor's degree in biology from UCLA. And then June 21, one week later, she will head into another operating room for another attempt to solve the problem she has fought since that first checkup when she was 1.
"I was fearful of the surgery and what's to come next for a while," she said. "But I flipped it. I don't live in fear of dying. You can't. Instead, I've made the choice to live like there is no tomorrow."
Story Credit: http://www.espn.com/espn/feature/story/_/id/26762392/extra-innings-ucla-softball-star-stevie-wisz
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