Baseball might have been the difference between life and death for Steve Lesniak.
The 27-year-old Elk Grove High School social studies teacher and freshman baseball coach was pitching batting practice April 24 when he was hit in the head by a line drive and suffered a concussion.
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That freak accident, however, might have been the best thing ever to happen to Lesniak.
He went home after practice and started feeling nauseated, so he went to Alexian Brothers Medical Center in Elk Grove Village to be examined.
That's when doctors discovered Lesniak had a giant aneurysm behind his right eye.
"This was a blessing in disguise," Lesniak said Monday afternoon, just six days after doctors at Alexian became the first in the United States to use a new piece of equipment in the lifesaving surgery.
Lesniak had a stent-assisted coil embolization performed May 8 to take care of the aneurysm. Two days later, the 2002 graduate of Prospect High School, where he played on a state championship football team and started on the varsity baseball team, was back at the home of his parents, Frank and Joanne, to recuperate.
Now Lesniak is hoping to return to work next week.
"Six days ago I had brain surgery, and to be talking to you now is amazing," said Lesniak, who is also an assistant football coach at Elk Grove. "Each day I feel myself getting stronger and being able to do more."
The accident occurred as Lesniak was pitching off a platform and behind a protective screen when one of his players, Dominic Stacey, lined a pitch toward him. Lesniak turned his head to the side, but in another fortunate twist, the screen wasn't tall enough to prevent him from getting hit.
Elk Grove athletic trainer Mike Porters determined Lesniak had a concussion, but he said he wasn't going to pursue treatment any further until he started feeling a little sick that evening.
At the hospital, a CT scan revealed a mass and an MRI showed Lesniak had an aneurysm about the size of a quarter on the right internal carotid artery behind his eye. Lesniak said he had some minor vision problems and headaches, but nothing significant.
"Steven's aneurysm was so large I was a little surprised he didn't come to us with symptoms of double vision already," said Dr. Tim Malisch, who has treated aneurysms for 15 years. "If it wasn't treated, it was going to continue to grow and grow.
"It's uncommon to see a 27-year-old with an aneurysm at all, and it's certainly uncommon to see a giant aneurysm (more than 20 millimeters). The combination of the two is even more uncommon."
The combination also had Lesniak on a path toward a possible stroke or death.
"It's one of those things where you have a ticking time bomb in your head, and you've got to get it taken care of," Lesniak said.
Malisch said surgery to remove Lesniak's aneurysm was not an option because of its location. Adding to the challenge was a blood vessel next to the aneurysm with extra curves and stenosis (areas of narrowing).
Alexian became the first hospital in the United States to use a new catheter designed for placing a stent for the procedure to make sure the aneurysm is blocked.
Malisch said Lesniak can gradually return to high-impact exercise and eventually will have no restrictions from weightlifting or coaching baseball.
Malisch said "it's extremely unlikely" the line drive caused Lesniak's aneurysm. Malisch said there is a good chance a previous blow to the head was the cause of the injury.
Lesniak, who played football for seven years and also played two seasons of baseball at Harper College, said he couldn't pinpoint a specific occurrence that could have caused the aneurysm. He recalled that when he was 9 or 10 years old he was knocked unconscious in a playground fall.
"I tried to walk down a slide, which is always a smart thing to do," Lesniak said with a laugh.
And Lesniak could also laugh about his player's hitting approach on the life-changing line drive.
"He stayed inside the ball real well," Lesniak said.
For that, Steve Lesniak will be eternally grateful.