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Byline: Adam Jude The Register-Guard

The wedding ceremony begins at 1 o'clock this afternoon at St. Mark Catholic Church on Echo Hollow Road, just a long punt away from where Steven Vedder and Amanda Watts met at Willamette High School four years ago.

They have been practically inseparable since, forging the kind of bond that bordered on annoying to some of their teenage friends. They have always been that couple: Their eyes sparkle when they meet. They finish each others' sentences. They say "I love you" so much that others playfully groan.

Imagine that: a tough-to-tackle running back swept off his feet by a blonde with an all-American smile. It's not an original formula - star athlete meets pretty girl - but few have done chemistry as well as Steven, 21, and Amanda, 19.

They are simply, literally, too perfect for words. Instead, they created their own muted gesture, one Steven will surely find a moment to share with Amanda sometime today.

Maybe it will happen when she reaches the altar in her strapless white dress, in front of 175 guests.

Maybe then Steven will grab her and offer his familiar message; he'll squeeze her hand three times, and she'll know exactly what he's thinking:

I ... Love ... You.

It was that same gesture that let her know what he was thinking 31/2 months ago as he lay in a coma in the intensive care unit at Salem Hospital. Even as doctors and nurses were telling her that he would probably be brain dead, she knew neurons were firing in his unrecognizable body when he suddenly squeezed her hand a few times:

I ... Love ... You.

No one really believed Amanda when she whispered the breakthrough: "Don't worry. He squeezed my hand." Not the nurses, who thought she was crazy when she prayed out loud and wouldn't leave his bedside.

And not her mother, Julie Watts, who bore the brunt of the initial shock alone in the waiting room and who wanted so desperately to believe her daughter, to believe her future son-in-law would be OK. But it was all too unbelievable.

It was supposed to be a routine knee surgery, Julie thought, and now I'm hysterically running around the emergency room looking for dantrolene?!?

Dr. Richard Tobin performs knee operations all the time at Willamette Surgery Center in Salem. There was nothing out of the ordinary to consider when Steven arrived April 4 to repair a torn ACL. Nothing so shocking to make the doctor think he would later consider giving up his practice.

Steven had suffered the knee injury while covering the opening kickoff in the final game of the season for the Western Oregon University football team (the tear was initially misdiagnosed, and he had tried rehab for a few months). With a toned 5-foot-10, 220-pound physique - with just 8 percent body fat - he was otherwise the picture of health. Why would he bother to consider "malignant hyperthermia" or "Rhabdomyolysis" or "dialysis" or "Compartment Syndrome" or the seven gaping incisions he would wake up and find four days later on his limbs?

"He's very lucky to be alive," Tobin can say now.

He wasn't sure of that when Steven flatlined for more than 30 minutes after a reaction to the general anesthesia - a rare syndrome called malignant hyperthermia, which creates a rapid breakdown and overheating of skeletal muscles. It's often fatal.

Dr. Paula Wutte, the anesthesiologist, recognized the signs of the MH attack early enough to administer the only antidote - dantrolene. Tobin credited the CPR done by his staff and the emergency medical technicians for keeping the blood flowing through Steven's heart, which needed to be shocked twice with a defibrillator. He was rushed to the ER at Salem Hospital, where CPR continued.

"It's like you see in the movies: He was definitely on that escalator heading up to the light. He was done," Tobin said. "Everyone in the room was going `Come on, Steve, you gotta win this one.' And all of a sudden, his heart started up again. It was truly a miracle."

His heart was beating again, but Steven was far from clear. He was induced into a coma, and his skeletal muscle tissue continued to break down rapidly - a process called Rhabdomyolysis - which caused his kidneys to fail. He was brought to the ICU and underwent constant dialysis to cleanse his blood.

Fluid built up in his muscles, which contracted and hardened solid. In a few hours, he ballooned to the size of a defensive tackle - about 270 pounds - and didn't look anything like the charming, four-sport star from his days at Willamette.

"For muscular, young males, (MH) is usually worse," Tobin said. "The muscles basically contract and they start burning up, and that's why the core temperature starts rising. The muscles never relax. And of course someone with larger, bigger muscles is in trouble."

By the next day, Steven's right arm and left leg were so swollen that he was likely to lose them. Tobin performed a fasciotomy, making five incisions in his left leg - the largest opening the size of a football on his quadriceps - plus two more on his right arm, including a cut that started in the middle of his palm and ran almost 12 inches toward the bend in his arm. (What remains is a two-inch-wide, popsicle-red scar that covers much of his forearm.)

All the while, Julie Watts was trying to get a grip.

While her daughter was in class at Oregon State University, Julie had volunteered to take Steven to the surgery and bring him back to her Springfield home and help him nurse his knee. She hadn't signed up for this.

"It was so surreal," she said. "They were using words like `code' and `stat' ... and I felt like my soul just wanted to leave and go hide somewhere."

By the time she arrived at the ER, Julie was told about malignant hyperthermia. Her first call was to her cousin, Dr. JoDee Anderson in Portland, who told her about dantrolene, the antidote. Julie scurried to the ER to make sure it had been used; she discovered Wutte had already done so at the surgery clinic.

Julie called her son D.J., a student in Salem, who hurried to pick up Amanda in Corvallis. She then called Steven's brother Richard and sister Elizabeth, who drove from Eugene.

It was supposed to be a routine knee surgery, Amanda thought, and now I'm crying out for angels?!?

The three Vedder kids had been through so much together already, excelling through a childhood of abandonment and neglect. They often were left to fend for themselves, and at one point Steven lived with a foster family. (His father now lives in Arizona, and he rarely speaks to his mother.) Through it all, he still became what his high school football coach, Skip Raish, called "the one that you want your daughter to bring home."

"He's a special person who's had a difficult life up to this point," said Western Oregon coach Arne Ferguson, who accepted Steven as a walk-on in the spring of 2007. "But he's always been able to overcome and do things right."

Steven has always been tough. He was a first-team all-Midwestern League running back and linebacker in 2003 and 2004, leading the league in rushing as a junior. In a playoff victory at Marshall High in Portland that season, he ran 80 yards for a touchdown - with only one shoe. His sock flapped behind him as he bulldozed defenders on his way to the end zone.

A backup at WOU last season, he rushed for 99 yards and two touchdowns on eight carries in his only start, which included a 74-yard TD run, the Wolves' longest play from scrimmage all season.

Once, during the first game of a summer-league basketball tournament heading into his sophomore year at Willamette, Steven shattered the index finger on his left (shooting) hand. Against a trainer's advice, he just taped the finger in place and played the rest of the weekend, then delayed surgery until the following spring, after the football and basketball seasons.

To this day, the top half of his finger is still bent at a 45-degree angle inward.

Yet there were no complications from the anesthesia during that operation. No sign of a random malignant hyperthermia attack - a cruel randomness that was hard to stomach for Richard, his best man, and Elizabeth, the maid of honor, as Steven lay fighting for his life in Salem.

"I've never seen my brother cry, and he actually came in (to the hospital room) and he ran away. He left. He wanted to go find a little corner to crawl in for a little while," Steven said. "You know, I love my brother and sister, but both of them came in the room and saw me and just lost it.

"(Amanda) came into the room and she immediately held my hand and she didn't leave me. She was a rock."

Amanda didn't sleep for the first three days. Doctors tried to prepare her for the worst; they figured he would wake up brain dead.

She camped out on a small cot at Steven's side for three weeks, becoming an unofficial nurse and frequently changing the bandages that covered his incisions. Fluid was constantly oozing out of him.

"I'd lift his leg and help wrap his hamstring and everything," she said. "In the middle of the night there would be so much drainage from his wounds that we'd have to change his bedding like three or four times. So we'd have to roll him from one side to the other. He hated that. It was crazy."

"I got up to 270 pounds from all the fluid," Steven added. "And when all the fluid was done draining, I was down to about 165. That's 105 pounds of fluid."

He continued dialysis for a couple of weeks, for four hours a day, which helped remove the "poison" from his body, as Amanda described it. So many chunks of broken-down muscle would run through the dialysis machine that the tubes had to be replaced every hour.

It was supposed to be a routine knee surgery, Steven thought, and I ended up dead on the table?!?

Medically, there was little reason to explain how he survived.

Being young and in great shape were factors, both in the severity of his body's shutdown - as Tobin said, his muscular body probably made the MH attack more severe - and the speed of his recovery.

Doctors first told him he might be in the hospital for three months. If that was the case, Amanda said she would marry him in the hospital. He had proposed on Valentine's Day last year, when she was still as a senior at Marist, where she transferred for her final two years of high school before earning a scholarship to the veterinary program at Oregon State.

Their priest was concerned they were too young. But after some marriage counseling, he saw that they were that couple: too perfect.

"He said he'd never seen a young couple as emotionally ready as they are," Julie said.

You can't keep too perfect down too long.

Steven woke up four days after entering the hospital, on Julie's birthday. One of the first things he muttered was an apology to Julie because he hadn't had a chance to finish the birdhouse he was building for her as a present.

He's doing well now. It's hard to know what to expect when you're about to see him, but he looks as if he could start training camp with his WOU teammates next month. Of course, that's not going to happen. His football career is over, and he realizes he's too blessed to worry about that.

He been working out regularly the past few weeks. When he first got back from the hospital to Julie's home in Springfield, he could barely walk to the end of the block. He can now run 20 minutes at a time, and he lifts weights five or six times a week. He's already regained about 25 pounds of muscle.

Steven receives frequent pats on the back from well-wishers, which is nice and all, except for the sharp pain it generates. He developed scoliosis while lying in the hospital bed; part of his back is constantly numb, while certain areas are extremely sensitive.

Because of swelling, he also had to have his tonsils removed last month, and he said everyone "freaked out" at the idea of him using anesthesia for surgery again. But he has memorized the list of safe anesthesia that his body can take. He'll probably elect to stay awake and use a spinal anesthesia when he - finally - gets that ACL in his right knee fixed next month, after he and Amanda return from their honeymoon in Hawaii next month.

He has no medical bills. The hospital tab of about $200,000 is paid mostly through insurance he signed up for in January through his father, with whom Steven has started to reconnect.

Amanda will resume classes at Oregon State this fall, and Steven - who made the Dean's list earlier this year - will do the same at WOU, where he's studying exercise and sports science.

Amanda said she can't wait to move into the apartment they have picked out in Corvallis.

The first of many major moments of the whole ordeal came a couple of days after Steven entered the hospital, as he lay in his coma, when Amanda was surprised to feel his hand gripping hers:

I ... Love ... You.

Another came when Steven made his ahead-of-schedule departure from the hospital on April 25, three weeks to the day after he went in for the routine knee surgery.

"I was in there for a long time," he said. "Not that I was scared, but I wasn't myself. I didn't know if I was going to leave, so when I did leave ..."

"There were some tears on the way home," Amanda interjected. "Happy ones."

"Very happy," he said. "I told the doctors, I'm going home and I'm not coming back - unless it's for something good."

"Unless it's for having babies," she said, grinning.

All in good time. And when that time does come, you can bet Steven will be camped out in the hospital room at Amanda's side, eager to see their new angel come to life.

Then they'll both have a new set of hands to squeeze.

Even with proper treatment, malignant hyperthermia has a high mortality rate.

Stephanie Kuleba, an 18-year-old cheerleader at West Boca Raton (Fla.) High School, died March 22 after complications from outpatient breast surgery. An autopsy report revealed that she had an "idiosyncratic reaction to anesthesia," which triggered an MH attack and caused the fatal reaction, according to the Palm Beach Post.

"She developed muscle rigidity and her body temperature rose," according to the autopsy report. "She developed disseminated intravascular coagulation and multi-organ failure and died at the hospital."

Steven Vedder is the rare exception to the ailment, and his doctors told him he might have been one of the few known - if not the only - patients in Oregon to survive an MH attack.

He now wears a medical necklace that is inscribed with his name and the phone number for an MH hotline: (800) 644-9737.

General anesthetics that trigger MH include sevoflurane, desflurane, isoflurane, halothane, enflurance and methoxyflurance, according to the Malignant Hyperthermia Association of the United States.

There has been dramatic improvement in understanding of MH risks, according to the MHAUS Web site. More than 80 genetic defects have been associated with the disorder.

More information is available at
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Title Annotation:Football Prep; Sweetheart's support helps ex-Willamette star recover from near-death ordeal
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jul 26, 2008
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