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Young baseball player comes back from concussion

| Tuesday, April 24, 2012, 2:22 p.m.
Eleven-year-old Nathan Polk watches a baseball game during opening night of the Ingomar/Franklin Park Athletic Association baseball league at Vestal Field in McCandless Township on Friday, April 13, 2012.  Photo by Andy Marchese
Eleven-year-old Nathan Polk watches a baseball game during opening night of the Ingomar/Franklin Park Athletic Association baseball league at Vestal Field in McCandless Township on Friday, April 13, 2012. Photo by Andy Marchese
Eleven-year-old Nathan Polk (center) talks with Owen Conner (left), 12, and Riley Leczo (right), 11, while waiting to play their own games during opening night of the Ingomar/Franklin Park Athletic Association baseball league at Vestal Field in McCandless Township on Friday, April 13, 2012.  Nathan was honored for his return to baseball Friday night after spending two years recovering from a serious injury. Photo by Andy Marchese
Eleven-year-old Nathan Polk (center) talks with Owen Conner (left), 12, and Riley Leczo (right), 11, while waiting to play their own games during opening night of the Ingomar/Franklin Park Athletic Association baseball league at Vestal Field in McCandless Township on Friday, April 13, 2012. Nathan was honored for his return to baseball Friday night after spending two years recovering from a serious injury. Photo by Andy Marchese
Players and coaches from the Durham Bulls pass around a baseball with the words 'Welcome Back Nathan!' written on it before the ball is used for the first pitch during opening night ceremonies for the Ingomar/Franklin Park Athletic Association baseball league at Vestal Field in McCandless Township on Friday, April 13, 2012.  Photo by Andy Marchese
Players and coaches from the Durham Bulls pass around a baseball with the words 'Welcome Back Nathan!' written on it before the ball is used for the first pitch during opening night ceremonies for the Ingomar/Franklin Park Athletic Association baseball league at Vestal Field in McCandless Township on Friday, April 13, 2012. Photo by Andy Marchese
Nathan Polk from the Durham Bulls waits to throw out the first pitch during opening night ceremonies for the Ingomar/Franklin Park Athletic Association baseball league at Vestal Field in McCandless Township on Friday, April 13, 2012.  Photo by Andy Marchese
Nathan Polk from the Durham Bulls waits to throw out the first pitch during opening night ceremonies for the Ingomar/Franklin Park Athletic Association baseball league at Vestal Field in McCandless Township on Friday, April 13, 2012. Photo by Andy Marchese
Nathan Polk throws out the first pitch during opening night ceremonies for the Ingomar/Franklin Park Athletic Association baseball league at Vestal Field in McCandless Township, April 13, 2012.
Andy Marchese
Nathan Polk throws out the first pitch during opening night ceremonies for the Ingomar/Franklin Park Athletic Association baseball league at Vestal Field in McCandless Township, April 13, 2012.

After an accidental head injury in January 2010 caused almost two years of debilitating pain for Nathan Polk, now 11, he finally is back to where he left off, at school with his friends, playing baseball and being a typical kid again.

In celebration of his recovery, Nathan was chosen to throw out the ceremonial first pitch for the Ingomar Franklin Park Athletic Association's 11- and 12-year-old Major League opening night earlier this month at Vestal Field in McCandless.

At the game, Nathan, who's a member of the association's Durham Bulls team, offered words of encouragement for kids in similar situations.

"Always stay positive about getting better. Just take it easy, and don't let it affect you too much," Nathan said.

More than two years ago, Nathan and his father were outside playing football when Nathan slipped on some black ice and hit his forehead, said his father, Jim. Because the then fourth-grader didn't black out and didn't seem to show any signs of a concussion, his parents didn't think much about it and were told to just keep an eye on him.

But weeks later, Nathan couldn't stand, walk or even sit up without having major pain. Jim and Betsy Polk knew something was wrong with their son. And despite months of treatment, testing and differing medical opinions, nothing seemed to alleviate the pain, which was so severe Nathan could hardly move.

"We tried half a dozen things with him, and we couldn't break the pain," Jim Polk said.

The parents said it was tough on their son, who ended up missing the second half of the fourth grade and all of the fifth grade at McKnight Elementary School in McCandless.

"Sometimes, I got wondering when I'd get better and stuff, but I always stayed positive," Nathan said.

Over the next few months after the accident, the family visited multiple doctors, specialists and hospitals trying to figure out why Nathan was in such pain. Various tests included a CT scan and X-rays, and Nathan even was put on a "migraine cocktail" of prescription drugs, Jim Polk said.

But, the father said, nothing worked, and some thought the problem might be behavioral or that Nathan might need major surgery.

Throughout his ordeal, the Polks said, their son was "awesome," but there were bad days, too.

"You had peaks and valleys. When he had the valleys, it was up to Mom and Dad to keep him up," Jim Polk said.

He said he hit his breaking point in January 2011, after the family had to leave a New Year's Eve party early because the noise was too painful for Nathan.

"That's when I was a man on a mission. I timelined everything. I started reaching out to anyone who could help him," Jim Polk said.

Along the way, the family found a new pediatrician for Nathan who eventually directed them to the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic's Family Based Mental Health Services in Pittsburgh in July 2011. It was there that the Polks found their answer.

Nathan's parents said Nathan was diagnosed with a postconcussion pain disorder and was put on the medication Cymbalta, which turned out to be the medicine that helped his pain.

"That was the catalyst that turned everything around," Jim Polk said.

Their pediatrician introduced them to someone would turn out to be a good friend and health advocate, Tom McHugh, a therapist who acted as part of Nathan's overall medical team.

McHugh said a lot of Nathan's care was conducted through the University of Pittsburgh Triple Board Program, an effort between the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh and Western Psych, which focuses on pediatrics, general psychiatry and child and adolescent psychiatry, according to McHugh and the Children's Hospital website.

Doctors and other caregivers worked with Nathan on his condition. In-home health care personnel gave the family strategies on how to "qualify and quantify pain," Jim Polk said.

McHugh, 62, said Nathan's support from doctors, the medical staff and his family really helped produce a successful outcome.

"If it wasn't for the family support and Nathan's determination, he wouldn't have made such a remarkable recovery as he has," said McHugh, of Glenshaw.

McHugh also said the North Allegheny School District offered "tremendous" support in helping Nathan with his in-home schooling.

In the fall, Nathan began attending a private school for a few months, which helped him transition back to regular school. Now, he is a sixth-grader at North Allegheny's Carson Middle School and playing baseball again, Jim Polk said. Nathan also gets to be more active with his family, which also includes his sisters, Morgan, 8, and Hanna, 14.

"I'm thrilled 'cause I get to have a relationship with him again," said Hanna, a softball player who likes to play catch with her brother.

Jim Polk said anyone in a similar situation never should be afraid to question something or give up.

"You have to continue to be your own researchers, and you have to continue to be your own advocates," he said.

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