| Dave Sheinin |
ON THE first Saturday of 2019, the Bowie family of New Braunfels, Texas – husband Micah; wife Keeley; daughter Brayden, 21; and son Brody, 17 – loaded up their grey 2019 Chevrolet Traverse and pointed it north, toward the Rockies.
They carried a week’s worth of clothing, ski equipment for the kids and the medical equipment they hoped would keep Micah alive for the drive: An oxygen concentrator that they rigged up to an extra car battery. Two backup concentrators. And – secured in a pair of giant plastic bins tethered to a hitch-mount cargo carrier in back – 18 portable oxygen tanks, plus a bulky, balky machine they hauled out during their frequent stops and again each night to refill them.
“A rolling ER,” they called it.
Having been released days earlier from a Texas hospital, where he was told there was nothing else that could be done for him, Micah Bowie was heading to the mountains, he figured, to die.
“If I was going to die while I’m waiting for a doctor,” he said, “I figured I’d do it in a place that looks like heaven.” If he died on the trip? “Well, at least I died trying,” he said. “At least I went down with a fight.”
At a basic, granular level, Bowie’s fight, ever since his surgically repaired thoracic diaphragm re-ruptured on December 22, is the simplest possible: to live to take another breath, aided by a level of oxygen therapy – eight liters per minute, 24 hours a day – that amounts to palliative care. And then to live to take another, and another.
Enough breaths that he can live another day, and then another.
Enough days that he can make it to Brayden’s college graduation in May, and his and Keeley’s 24th Anniversary in July.
But the longer he has managed to keep himself alive, the bigger the fight has grown and the greater the number of opponents. In addition to the near-daily contest of life or death, Bowie, a major league pitcher from 1999 to 2008, and his family now find themselves battling, in no particular order.
A medical system that doesn’t quite know how to treat him and is reluctant to operate because the likelihood of his dying is so great and the likelihood of success so slim; doctors and pain-management administrators who, due to heightened scrutiny brought on by the nation’s opioid crisis, balk at prescribing the dosage of heavy drugs required to manage his severe pain; a deepening personal-finances crisis that has forced the Bowies to blow through their savings and sell off most of their assets; and the administrators of the Major League Baseball Players Benefit Plan, which has denied the 44-year-old Bowie the USD6,000-per-month disability payments he believes he is entitled to.
“There are days when I just say, ‘I can’t do this anymore’,” Bowie said.
With his six-foot-four frame sprawled out on a couch – from which, he said regretfully, he can’t get up to greet a visitor – Micah Bowie points to a spot roughly between his right clavicle and the bottom of his rib cage and said, “My liver is up here.” Even if you don’t know exactly where a liver is supposed to be, you could probably guess it’s not supposed to be underneath your nipple.
Outside, through a large window, dozens of skiers are descending Peak 7 – elevation 12,998 feet. Sometimes, when the kids go out to ski, Bowie can position himself to watch them. While his family struggles to adjust to altitude, he said it actually helps him breathe better. But he couldn’t walk 30 feet, he said, without his oxygen supply.
His problems started, he says, in August 2016, when a neurosurgeon implanted a spinal-cord stimulator to treat the chronic back pain Bowie said he developed from his years as a big league pitcher – parts of one year each for the Atlanta Braves, Chicago Cubs and Colorado Rockies and two each for the Oakland A’s and Washington Nationals – and that had gotten progressively worse since he retired.
Not long after, he said, the small generator implanted in his abdomen to power the stimulator detached and migrated, wreaking havoc on Bowie’s insides. His diaphragm, the sheet of muscle that contracts to draw air into the lungs, was punctured, causing a cascade of maladies. “It left a scar through my right lung,” he said, “and my intestines went through my left lung.”
He had one surgery to remove the scar tissue from his left lung, another to repair the right lung and another to reattach his diaphragm. But even then, he needed three litres of oxygen per minute to aid his breathing. No more golf. No more skiing. He could still visit with the students at the Bowie Baseball Academy, which he and Keeley have owned and operated since 2009, but he wasn’t going to be getting on any more mounds to demonstrate the left-handed technique that helped him, for example, go 4-4 with a 3.74 ERA in 45 appearances for the Nationals in 2006 and 2007.
As he visited doctor after doctor, hoping for a more permanent, oxygen-therapy-free cure, the medical bills piled up. Bowie said the running total is now approaching USD500,000; insurance has paid for the bulk of it, and government disability payments have helped, but his co-pays and deductibles, he said, are still running USD25,000-USD30,000 annually. Texas’ doctor-friendly medical malpractice laws offered no hope. To stay afloat, he said, he has had to sell his truck, cash in his kids’ college-savings accounts and put the academy up for sale.
“Everything you’ve planned your whole life for, you start having to use those funds just to live,” he said.
In late 2017, he applied for disability benefits from the MLB Players Benefit Plan, jointly operated by the league and the union to govern the pension and disability benefits for former players. Having accrued less than four years of official MLB service time – he spent much of his career battling elbow, groin and hip injuries, and he frequently bounced between the majors and minors – he understood he fell below the cutoff necessary for full, vested benefits.
But he thought he would qualify for disability relief based on a provision in the plan that provides full payments to players whose disability “result(s) directly from active service”. Bowie needed the back surgery, he figured, due to the physical toll of pitching, and it was the back injury that led to the stimulator implant and the implant that caused the ruptured diaphragm that has left him disabled.
The request, however, was denied by plan administrators, as was an appeal filed in 2018. Bowie said he called the union and spoke to a former pitcher who now works for the union and sits on the appeal board and who, according to Bowie, told him the denial of the appeal was “rubber-stamped” without anyone actually looking at its merits – because that’s what the lawyers instructed them to do.
“It’s hard,” Bowie said, “especially when I have to look my son and daughter in the eye and tell them we’re doing everything we can. But the game they grew up in has turned its back on me. Not the game itself – baseball was good to me – (but) some of the people running it.”
A union spokesman declined to speak about Bowie’s case, citing medical privacy concerns, but denied the accusation that the denial of the appeal was “rubber-stamped”, saying the appeal was fully considered on its merits. At issue, apparently, was the question of whether Bowie’s condition is directly related to pitching (his view) or caused by a medical error (the benefit plan’s view).
“We thought we had that safety net,” Keeley Bowie said. “And to not only be dealing with life and death, and all the pain – but also the financial stuff. I know he’s stressed, because he wants to take care of his family. He’s always taken care of us. But now he knows he can’t.”
The pain is an enemy but also a constant companion that Bowie knows intimately – its whims, its movements, its personality.
“There’s a point where there’s so much pain you pass out,” he said. “And then right below that, there’s a level where you just lay there in excruciating pain. I may go two or three days at a time where it hurts too bad to sleep. And it doesn’t matter the amount of medicine. And if you take extra, then you run out and they won’t refill it. So I just take the pain.”
After his diaphragm re-ruptured on December 22, Bowie tried to make it through Christmas without going in the hospital. But on Christmas Eve, his oxygen saturation level – 95 to 100 in a normal human – crashed into the 70s, even with his supplemental oxygen dialed up to 10 litres per minute, and his family rushed him to the hospital.
At first, every minute felt like touch and go, until finally, after five days, he had stabilised. “They kind of asked,” Bowie said, speaking of the hospital staff, “‘Do you want to go home to die?'”
At one point, Brody told him, “We would have been OK with you dying – because you finally would have been out of pain.”
“That breaks your heart,” Bowie said now. “It’s been hard because my family has to see me just writhing in pain most days.”
The journey to Colorado was largely for the purpose of seeing another specialist, a pulmonologist in Denver. But the story there, Bowie said, was more of the same: more testing, more puzzlement, no surgery, no hope. And another awkward scene over pain meds.
“If you go to the doctor and say I’m writhing in pain most days,” Bowie said, “they say, ‘Well, you’re probably a drug addict wanting more prescriptions’. And you just sit there and go, ‘Well, OK. I guess I’m going to go home and writhe in pain.’ It’s torture, flat-out.”
After a couple of weeks in the mountains, the Bowies loaded up the Traverse again and headed back home.
This time, Micah’s condition was a little worse, so the journey took a little longer: three days to make a drive that should’ve been 14 hours. At one stop in Amarillo, he said, it took three hours just to get him back in the car.
“This is no way to live,” he said resignedly.As his story has gotten around, help has begun to trickle in. The Association of Professional Ball Players of America and the Baseball Assistance Team, organisations that help ex-players in need, have both reached out and have begun to offer financial aid.
The search for a surgeon willing to operate on him continues, but Bowie said he has no more doctor’s appointments scheduled. There’s an experimental stem-cell treatment out of Japan that shows some promise, but he’s waiting to see if he qualifies.
Is Bowie scared of dying?
He takes a long pause. Other than the oxygen tubes in his nostrils, he looks about like most ex-ballplayers a decade after their last pitch – a little heavier, a little grayer, a little balder. Bowie still sports the goatee he wore as a National.
“No,” he said softly. “It makes me sad” – and here, he pauses, wipes his eyes, reaches for a glass of water on a table next to his couch and takes a long sip – “because I know how much my family is going to miss me.” – Text & Photos by The Washington Post