On a January morning almost six months ago, Fate once again beaned Tony Conigliaro. The former Red Sox slugger now lies in a Salem, Mass. chronic-care hospital. Family and friends are sincerely optimistic about the extent of his eventual recovery. Doctors are sincerely uncertain. Bumper stickers around Boston say I PRAY FOR TONY "C". He still needs those prayers.
But just as he did when he returned to play baseball after having been nearly blinded by a pitch on the left side of his head in 1967, Conigliaro, 37, has already beaten the odds and the early pessimistic prognoses of experts. Most people would have died from the "sudden death" attack that stopped his heart for at least six minutes on Jan. 9. Most people never would have opened their eyes, recognized family and friends, talked in whispers, smiled, caught a sponge ball or done any of the things Conigliaro has done, and is doing, after being nearly comatose for seven weeks. But, then, most people aren't Tony Conigliaro.
Over the years Tony C has been called, with some justification, arrogant and uncompromising. He has taken some giant steps backward in his business affairs. But even those who didn't like him never questioned his tenacity and his eagerness to succeed. As a ballplayer and in his second career as a sportscaster, he was essentially a populist: a hero to the masses, a problem to management. A full decade after his best years in the big leagues, he now receives as many as 400 get-well letters a week. Along with his rugged good looks, it was his indomitable will that drew people to Tony C.
Even the more conservative of Conigliaro's doctors use the word "remarkable" when talking about his recovery. Unfortunately, the word "miracle" has been overused, to the point that the Conigliaro recovery story sounds as if it's occurring at Easter in Fátima. There have been no miracles. Some of the misunderstanding has come from the over-enthusiasm of a loving family grasping for straws of hope. Some has come from an impulsive press following the lead of the family. And some has come from the medical profession's own inability to explain precisely what has happened, and what is going to happen, to Tony C.
The story of Tony Conigliaro is a drama being played on the far edge of science. At Tony's bedside a Russian shaman has waved his arms, a holistic healer has searched for an aura and an acupuncturist has inserted needles. Tony is still receiving two treatments—low-voltage neuro-muscular stimulation and a nutritional supplement—considered worthless by most of the medical Establishment. But even Conigliaro's own chief attending physician, Dr. Maximiliaan Kaulbach, a member of the medical mainstream, concedes there are "imponderables" at work.
"Faith is to believe what we do not see," said St. Augustine, "and the reward of this faith is to see what we believe." The Conigliaro family believes it has seen the fruit of its extraordinary vigil.
There are precedents to support the family's optimism, one of the most dramatic being the case of Carol Davis, wife of Al Davis, owner of the Oakland (cum Los Angeles?) Raiders. Davis' one-man faith train came steamrolling into Tony C's room in the Shaughnessy Rehabilitation Hospital about 3:30 p.m. on June 7. Davis visited with Tony and his family for 90 minutes. He told them that after spending 13 days in a deep coma triggered by cardiac arrest in October of 1979, Carol woke up and said, "What happened?" "Baby," said Davis, who was at her bedside, "you just got sick. Now you're going to get better." By degrees, she did. Today Davis and others say she's about 98% of her old self. The professionals will cringe, but Carol Davis may just be a medical miracle.
But if the star-crossed Conigliaro is to be another miracle, he'll have to keep beating the odds. That he is beating them is shown by his slight but steady improvement, improvement that must be kept in perspective. "If you look at him clinically," says Dr. Kaulbach, "he's still severely impaired."
Conigliaro spends most of his time in bed in Room 215, directly across from the nurses' station, but he has been able to sit up for two months and can now be wheeled onto the second-floor deck without the oxygen tanks he required until a few weeks ago. He doesn't move much, not because there is any permanent paralysis but because his brain is still unable to send the correct messages to all parts of his body. And his movements are still somewhat spastic, because the part of the brain responsible for primary movements—the brainstem—has undergone the most damage.
Because he has difficulty in eating even Jell-O and yogurt without getting it into his lungs, the 3,500 calories he receives per day are pumped into his stomach through a tube. His problems with breathing necessitated the surgical hole in his windpipe known as a tracheostomy. This exit hole bypasses the vocal cords, and each time he wants to talk, the "trache" must be temporarily closed. He talks infrequently, and mostly in whispers, so that it's difficult even for his family to understand him. Even if the day comes when Conigliaro is no longer "severely impaired," his vocal cords have been inactive for so long that speaking will be difficult for a long time.