Severe shortness of breath during a little run around his South Carolina neighborhood shortly after the end of Triple-A Durham’s season was the first sign of trouble.
By the next morning, when David Hess started coughing up blood in the shower, he knew something was very much wrong.
Results of a series of tests at a local hospital staggered the 28-year-old: A tumor in his chest that had grown to the size of a cantaloupe and was severely limiting the flow of blood and air.
“They pretty much said that that run could have — and should have — killed me,” said Hess, a veteran of parts of four big-league seasons with the Orioles, Marlins and Rays. “It was basically pressing on everything and preventing blood flow to go to my heart the way it was supposed to and it blocked off my windpipe. … I was working at 10 percent capacity of what somebody should be.”
The good news for Hess was that doctors told him the cancerous germ cell tumor, which they estimated had been growing for two years, was considered very treatable with chemotherapy and very curable.
And the better news, which came about 10 days ago, was that he appears to have won the fight. The tumor, reduced to just a small mass of tissue, is expected to soon disappear.
“I was, I guess, as fortunate as you could be with a cantaloupe-sized tumor in your chest,” Hess said.
As an added bonus, he has been cleared to return to baseball training and activities, with a plan to report to spring training when the Rays open minor-league camp Feb. 28 and return to the game mound within a few months.
“I think anytime your body goes through a big trauma like that, you don’t know what to expect,” Hess said. “And so far, I’ve really bounced back better than I expected.”
Hess has a long list of people to thank for help getting through the medical ordeal, starting with his wife, Devin: “I don’t think I could possibly ask for anybody better to go through all this. Because anything I needed, she was constantly looking stuff up and trying to stay on top of how things would be best suited for me to come back stronger than before.”
From there, a litany of family, friends, former and current teammates and coaches.
“It was such a cool thing for us to see and such a humbling thing,” he said. “When stuff like this happens, I think you really get to see the impact you’ve made, and a lot of times you don’t even realize it.
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“So just to hear some of the things that all those people had to say about me and how they came behind us and just lifted us up, it was really too much to put into words. That helped immensely through everything.”
Hess also raved about the Rays, who re-signed him to a minor-league deal shortly after the diagnosis, eliminating any concerns about insurance coverage as well as anxiety over having a job if/when he was cleared.
“The Rays, from the get-go, were as incredible as a team could possibly be,” Hess said. “And not just from a baseball standpoint, because they made it very clear that that was secondary to them through all this.
“The primary focus was to make sure that I was taken care of and got everything that I needed, and they were constantly checking in and making sure everything was OK.”
Hess pitched in only one game for the Rays last season after signing as a minor-league free agent following seven seasons in the Orioles organization. He opened at Durham (going 5-1, 2.81 in 13 games), was traded July 3 to the Marlins then released after pitching in 14 games (2-2, 8.00), re-signed a minor-league deal with the Rays, and was twice called up (pitching once, Sept. 7, allowing six runs in two innings) and then designated for assignment.
Now he is poised for his biggest victory, returning to the majors after battling cancer.
That he could so with the Rays would be fitting given his past history: Making his big-league debut against them in May 2018, and later that season somewhat infamously — thanks to a camera taping pre-game workouts at the Trop — when he was hit in the eye by a football tossed by a teammate.
Hess has been very open in sharing details about his health journey — posting details on his @hess_express28 Twitter and Instagram accounts, including the Jan. 28 announcement he was “cured.” That’s in part to aid him and Devin in circulating updates to many, but also to help others by showing his faith and providing inspiration.
“My mindset from the beginning was that this is a very difficult situation but trusting that God’s going to use this as something that’s going to be (an) inspirational to other people,” Hess said.
“I was around a lot of a lot of people in the rooms when I was getting treatment that were in a lot worse situations than I was. ... I just wanted to show that even in the bad times, when things are looking pretty grim and it’s not always the smoothest-sailing times, that there’s goodness that can come out of that. Things can work together and benefit not just you, but the people around you in ways that you may not realize.”
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