How else could Chris and Cathy Hutchins reflect on their daughter’s harrowing ordeal? Tighe will walk with her class in graduation ceremonies next weekend, no small milestone given the events of the past six-plus months.
One minute she’s an active, ambitious senior playing lacrosse and earning recognition for her environmental work in Berkeley. Then, suddenly, she’s on the floor of her apartment, the victim of what later would be diagnosed as a splenic artery aneurysm.
Put another way: Tighe Hutchins, 21, was bleeding internally and uncontrollably. Doctors at Alta Bates Hospital were struggling to keep her alive when her parents arrived from their suburban Baltimore home on Oct. 25, the morning after Hutchins collapsed. She was exhausting the hospital’s blood supply at an alarming rate, running through about 40 units the first night alone.
The next night, with the hospital perilously low on its reserves – especially the O-negative blood Hutchins needed – her father, Cal lacrosse coach Theresa Sherry and Dr. Brad Buchman, the school’s medical director, huddled in a waiting room. Many of Hutchins’ teammates lingered nearby, volunteering to donate blood on the spot to pump directly into their friend.
That wasn’t practical, but Sherry wondered about the impact of the entire team marching to the blood bank. Buchman seized on the idea and called the Red Cross office on Claremont Avenue in Oakland. He implored the night supervisor to release 12 pints of O-negative, to get Hutchins through the night, with the promise of a parade of people replenishing the supply the next day.
They got the blood.
Before long, hospital officials were racing to Hutchins’ bedside, Igloo cooler in hand. She made it through the night and, thanks also to extraordinary efforts by Alta Bates doctors and nurses, survived a series of surgeries in the ensuing days. (She stopped breathing at one point, endured kidney failure and had her spleen removed.)
Along the way, the effort expanded beyond one seriously ill lacrosse player. As promised, Hutchins’ teammates showed up the next day to donate blood. Sherry and other Cal officials sent out mass e-mails and distributed flyers on campus, encouraging people to donate. Josh McPaul, Hutchins’ pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, spread the word.
Donors soon flooded the Red Cross office. Stanford’s coaches gave blood, as did Fresno State’s. Oregon sent a prayer shawl, and other teams sent stuffed animals. More than 60 college lacrosse teams wrote notes on the Caring Bridge Web site.
“It was an unbelievable wave of support,” said Chris Hutchins. “It was phenomenal, mind-boggling, what people did to save her life.”
Edward Faso, a Red Cross account manager in Oakland, hadn’t seen “this kind of rally around one person” in nearly four years on the job. Sherry said Red Cross officials estimated about 60 people more than usual donated blood every day in the two weeks after Hutchins was stricken.
Today, the blood bank has several photos of Cal players donating and a lacrosse jersey autographed by Hutchins’ teammates.
“At one point,” Hutchins said, “I thought I had to get through this thing for everyone else, because they were thinking of me.”
The family sport
Tighe Hutchins grew up in a family with deep connections to lacrosse: Cathy Hutchins played in high school, and Chris played for one year at North Carolina. Chris Hutchins also has worked in the lacrosse world for more than two decades, first in retail business and now running tournaments. He helped start a professional league, including his hometown Baltimore Bay Hawks.
Tighe’s decision to attend Cal meant moving far from home, but she came to view the school’s lacrosse and athletic community as her extended family. She liked the quirky, funky, environmental flavor of Berkeley. Her major is Conservation and Resource Studies, which involves urban agriculture work in Berkeley – she and some fellow students won an award for starting a composting system in Cal’s fraternity and sorority houses.
Hutchins was by no means a star, but her teammates voted her one of the Bears’ captains in 2008-09, and she became a mentor to younger players. She endured a string of injuries, from back surgery in the summer of 2008 to knee surgery in the fall of ’09, with little complaint.
“She’s an old soul,” Cathy Hutchins said.
Those injuries tested Tighe, but they were nothing compared with the medical odyssey that began on Oct. 24. The Bears had a scrimmage at St. Mary’s, then returned to Berkeley to entertain visiting high school recruits. Most players and coaches attended the Cal-Washington State football game, but Hutchins went home to rest her knee.
That night, after complaining of stomach pain, she abruptly passed out. One of her roommates, Krystie Piscopo, and Krystie’s mother, Diane, were in the apartment and quickly called an ambulance. They thought Hutchins was having a seizure.
As doctors scrambled to save Hutchins in the days to come, word spread quickly in the digital world. Even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger got involved. Chris Hutchins’ business partner had sent out a mass e-mail about Tighe, and among those receiving it was Jake Steinfeld (“Body by Jake”), another co-founder of the pro lacrosse league and a longtime Schwarzenegger friend.
Alta Bates officials eventually fielded a call from the governor’s office, which just wanted to make sure Hutchins was getting good care.
But the response ran deeper than friends in high places. Parents of other Cal lacrosse players found a rental house for the Hutchins family to stay in during their bedside vigil. Tighe’s high school lacrosse coach traveled from Baltimore to visit her. Cal held a candlelight vigil, where Chris Hutchins ran into basketball star Patrick Christopher, among others.
All along, lacrosse players and coaches across the country overwhelmed the family with support. At last check, the Caring Bridge site offering updates on Hutchins’ condition had registered nearly 70,000 visits.
“There’s a strong camaraderie because it’s not such a huge sport,” said Alex Tickner, one of Hutchins’ roommates and teammates. “You’re not playing for the glory or the media. You’re playing for the love of the game.”
Red Cross blood flow
Nearly 4 million people donated blood to the American Red Cross in the latest fiscal year for which numbers are available (2007-08). The organization distributed more than 6 million units of blood that year to approximately 3,000 hospitals across the country.
Even so, it is not unusual for demand to outstrip supply: Someone in the United States needs blood every two seconds. Only 38 percent of adults age 18 to 65 are eligible to donate (because of various health concerns), according to a 2007 University of Minnesota study, and fewer than 8 percent of those people actually donate blood each year.
So Tighe Hutchins, while an extreme case in many ways, is hardly alone.
Her life is slowly returning to normal. She moved back to Berkeley a few weeks ago after five months at her parents’ home, where she spent much of her time in physical therapy. She has avoided the hospital since two brief stays in January.
Her biggest issue now is her lower right leg, in which she developed a severe nerve injury during one surgery. She wears a metal brace with a hinge on the ankle, allowing her to move the foot up and down. Hutchins has little feeling in her leg, but she knows nerves regenerate slowly.
“I feel almost back to myself now,” she said this week, sitting on a couch in her apartment. “Living with my leg is a daily hurdle, but I really feel like I have much more energy and I’m more able to do what I like to do.”
The Hutchins family already had weathered one medical crisis: Tighe’s older sister, Peyton, was seriously injured in a car accident in May 2005. She broke her hip, leg and wrist – and much as Tighe helped her sister recover, Peyton did the same this time.
Could have been worse
So the family brings experience and perspective to the process. They realize the outcome could have been far worse.
“I was honestly worried Tighe was going to die and we’d have 40 crushed girls and a crushed set of parents,” said Buchman, the Cal doctor. “It’s pretty miraculous she’s still here.”
Hutchins plans to attend summer school and the fall semester, to complete her degree, but her presence in next weekend’s ceremonies (one Saturday and another Sunday) will count as emotional on many levels. Tickner, her roommate, talked of how Hutchins’ ordeal, “sad and scary as it was,” brought the lacrosse team closer together.
And Cathy Hutchins found fresh heartache in this week’s slaying of Virginia lacrosse player Yeardley Love. Tighe Hutchins and Love were teammates at one point during their youth; Love grew up in an adjacent Maryland town.
Cathy, then, feels especially fortunate to attend her daughter’s graduation. She also sees lingering lessons in the response to Tighe’s illness – all the phone calls and text messages and food and support. And, yes, all the people who donated blood.
“It made me feel great about humanity, what people reached out and did for us,” Cathy Hutchins said. “We’re here for a short time, and our children are a gift. Life is a little more tender and has a different flavor, an enriched flavor.”