Michael Neustifter, Neuro-Optometric Rehabilitation, and a Path to Major League Baseball
Adapted from Sports Illustrated, originally titled “The Lost-and-Found Story of Michael Neustifter “ by Tom Verducci and published April 30, 2020
Sometime this summer Major League Baseball will conduct an ad hoc version of its amateur draft. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, which halted all baseball since mid-March, it may be shortened from its usual 40 rounds to between five and 10 rounds.
Players under consideration by major league teams include the usual assortment of comeback stories, such as pitchers recovered from Tommy John surgery or position players coming back from broken bones, torn hamstrings or poor seasons. Few if any of the comeback stories will have covered as trying a physical and emotional arc as the one of Michael Neustifter of North Greenville University in Tigerville, S.C.
“That was a real blow after leaving that doctor,” he says. “I thought I played my last baseball game. I could probably live a somewhat normal life with what I had. Unfortunately, I play a game where the eyes are probably the most important tool.”
This is a lost-and-found story. It is a story that befits the times of this pandemic, when life as we knew it and all we took for granted are taken away, and when our greatest coping mechanism is hope.
“Patience was never a great virtue of mine,” says Michael’s mom, Angela. “I learned a great deal about patience and what true faith is, which is believing in something you can’t see.
“That sounds like a play on words because we were dealing with a vision issue. You think you have faith until something like this happens. Then it goes to a whole different level. It has affected the way I view things and will the rest of my life.”
“Come to the dugout.”
It was Feb. 15, 2019, a Friday night, when Angela saw the text from Michael on her phone. Angela was visiting Michael for the weekend from the family’s home in Carrollton, Texas. When she received the text, Angela was in the stands watching North Greenville play Nova Southeastern. “I knew something was wrong,” she says. “As a baseball mom, I know you never go to the dugout during a game.”
“Mom, I can’t see the baseball,” he told Angela. “Don’t worry,” she said, “It’ll be better tomorrow. That’s baseball.” “No, Mom. I can’t see. Like, I can’t see!” he insisted. Staff from North Greenville, a Division-II school, already had called ahead to the emergency room at Greenville Medical Trauma Center. “I was thinking maybe I can play the next game,” Michael says. “Little did I know it was so much more.”
Doctors at the emergency room examined his eyes. They ran some tests. They told Michael it appeared he had a detached retina. Michael and Angela decided to see an eye specialist Monday morning. When they did, the ophthalmologist ran another battery of tests. “I promise you, you don’t have a detached retina,” the doctor said. “There’s nothing physically wrong with your eyes.” “Well, I can’t see anything clearly,” Michael said. “Well, I don’t see anything,” the specialist said. “I can’t tell you what’s wrong if I don’t see anything.”
Angela, a freelance court reporter, extended her stay. For the next nine days she drove Michael from doctor to doctor, eventually driving through a snowstorm to get to a specialist in Nashville. That’s when they received the diagnosis of visual snow syndrome, or VS.
VS is a devastating and rare neurological disorder that can affect vision, hearing and cognitive function. Michael’s symptoms fit those of VS. The world to him looked like a broadcast on an old television set marred by terrible reception—with blurry, visual snow, like static that never stops, not even when his eyes were closed. VS patients never get relief from the condition. There is no procedure to correct it. No cure. The condition is so rare that its prevalence is unknown. Its onset occurs among a younger population than most neurological disorders. The worst cases do not lead to total blindness but can nonetheless become severe enough to meet the legal definition of blindness. “It made sense,” Michael says of the diagnosis. “It was hard to gather it in, but it made sense.”
After nine days with Michael, and many sleepless nights, Angela booked a flight home to Texas. “I had held it together for nine days to get through all the doctor visits,” she says. “As I got to the gate, I just put my head in my hands and the tears just … it’s hard to talk about it now. I remember sitting there at the gate and tears just began to stream down my eyes. I said, ‘God, take my vision.’ As a parent, you would take on anything for your child.”
Michael kept hope that the blurry vision would go away. He attended practices and games, but he could not see well enough to play. Finally, his coach, Landon Powell, advised him to take a medical redshirt. His season officially was over. “That was like throwing in the white flag,” Neustifter says. “That was probably my lowest point. Once that happened, it all kind of hit me. ‘Oh my gosh, I might never play baseball again.’ ”
Upon returning home, Angela says she slept “for two or three days solid.” Then she began researching as much as she could about Michael’s condition. “I began calling all over,” she says. “I called between 30 and 40 doctors. Switzerland, Panama, all over the United States … I had to think outside the box. I did not believe he had that [VS] condition.”
One day Angela visited her family physician for a routine checkup. He could see she was stressed. He asked her what was wrong. “I broke down and told him what was going on,” she says. “He said, ‘I want you to call this doctor, Dr. Charles Shidlofsky.’ Of all the research I had done over several months, I did not know this doctor. It turned out he was five miles from our home.”
When Michael came home from school in mid-May, he made an appointment with Shidlofsky, a behavioral optometrist in Plano, Texas. “The first thing I noticed is he ran these different tests,” Michael says. “I had been to so many different doctors, and they all ran the same tests.” Says Angela, “These were 20 to 30 tests that had nothing to do with dilating the eyes. He even ran an MRI to make sure something wasn’t going on in the brain. He was checking the neurotransmissions from the brain to the eyes and back.” It was several hours of testing.
Finally, Shidlofsky arrived at a conclusion. “You don’t have visual snow syndrome,” the doctor told Michael. “I think that was misdiagnosed. What I’m seeing is you had a concussion in the past six or seven months that you probably didn’t know you had. Concussion is a form of brain damage, and when it’s not treated properly you can have serious side effects. I’ve seen it many times, often with football players. You just have some messed up pathways between the brain and the eyes, and they are messed up because you were not treated properly. I will have your vision back to where it was by the end of the summer. It may even be better than what it was.”
Michael and Angela could hardly believe what they heard. Michael says of his reaction, “It took some time to process. It wasn’t promised that I was going to get my vision back. We were optimistic. It was just that now we had hope after being shut down by so many doctors. That was the big thing.” Says Angela, “I think we saw 11 doctors in four different states. As it turned out the one who cured his vision was five minutes from me.”
The diagnosis made Michael remember an incident from a game on Feb. 2, 2019. In trying to stretch a double into a triple, Neustifter banged his chin on the ground when he slid headfirst into third base. He was called out. As he jogged off the field, he saw stars floating around him. He had trouble breathing. He felt nauseous. He stayed in the game. Visual symptoms after head injury can often take weeks or months to manifest. That’s what happened to Michael.
“The first time I saw the ball coming at me I thought, That’s what the ball is supposed to look like,” he says. “The fall was a struggle, but I kind of anticipated it. Coach Powell told me, ‘Just keep working at it every day. You’re my guy. I trust you.’”
In the spring, Neustifter hit .296 in his first seven games. Then in a weekend series against Kentucky Wesleyan, he homered in three straight games while driving in 11 runs. He knew then he was all the way back. He was hitting .315 and slugging .641 when the pandemic ended North Greenville’s season on March 12.
One baseball season ended by near-blindness. The next season ended by a pandemic. Even without a pro contract, Neustifter has provided a story for these uncertain times.
See the original article on the Sports Illustrated website at https://www.si.com/mlb/2020/04/30/baseball-draft-michael-neustifter