On a crisp Michigan morning last October, retired All-Star pitcher David Wells stalked deer on the ranch he shares with former slugger Kirk Gibson while gathering the goods for the venison tacos he serves at his charity golf tournament.
Something pierced the calm.
“I was in my tree stand and my phone started buzzing,” Wells said Tuesday. “I looked down and it was Nick, so I answered it. He said, ‘Thank you.’ I said, ‘For what?’ He said, ‘For saving my life. I’m doing the treatments.’
“I’m sitting in that tree stand crying. It was a pretty powerful moment.”
The caller was Nick Norris, a former Navy SEAL deployed for a decade in combat zones across Iraq and Afghanistan. He lived what so many others in close-quarters combat areas experienced — the IED blasts, explosive breaches, rough helicopter landings and more.
When he began his post-service life, those traumatic brain experiences began to subtly and consistently reveal themselves.
Norris’ wife and friends noticed he was a little off, a bit moody, not quite the person they’d known. When he accepted those waves of loving diagnosis, Norris began searching for ways to address his situation.
That’s where cutting-edge treatment and technology shaped by San Diego oncologist Dr. Kevin Murphy and Wells’ commitment to veterans merged.
That’s where neuromodulation, also known by the tongue-tangling title of repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, helped guide Norris back to his best and most productive self.
“It’s not like the stereotypical PTSD guys, on the fringe of society,” Norris said. “It’s more the guy, ‘I want to be myself again’ or perform optimally or have that clarity of thought.”
When brain injury impacts wave function, it’s like a symphony falling out of step. The trombones go rogue and the violins go quiet. The music jars, rather than flows.
Neuromodulation becomes a new-age conductor.
Murphy said he has used his proprietary software to bolster the swing speed of PGA Tour player J.B. Holmes, who donated $100,000 to aid others. The technology, Muprhy said, can help a sniper shoot more accurately and or an autistic child to speak.
That’s what happened to Murphy’s son, Jack, who finally began to make direct eye contact with his father after treatment at age 9.
“It’s like he woke up,” said Murphy, who also works as a staff member at UC San Diego and Rady Children’s Hospital. “He looked at me like, who are you? I’m like, ‘I’m your dad.’ ”
Wells has forged deep friendships with military veterans and elite team members in particular.
On Tuesday, Wells passed on a check for $100,000 to target the treatment of 10 Navy SEALs. The non-invasive wave manipulation, which costs up to $10,000 per patient, begins to return brain function to normal function in about two months.
For those who benefit, it’s like a light switch slowing dousing the darkness.
“Everyone watches something like, ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ when they were after Bin Laden,” Wells said. “Well, those guys are heroes. Then I kept hearing about them going into the V.A. and just being handed a pill or whatever.
“The more of those guys I met, it kind of pissed me off when they weren’t getting what they need.”
Norris said the tenacity brought to the mound by Wells — a Point Loma High School grad from Ocean Beach who pitched a perfect game for the Yankees in 1998 — generated a spark.
The donation this week simply continued his no-nonsense advocacy for veterans.
“I wish there were 10,000 David Wellses out there,” Norris said.
The software and the unique application developed by Murphy out of his San Diego company known as PrTMS already has started to ripple across the cranial pond.
Murphy recently visited the Kennedy Space Center as a consultant for those in extreme isolation situations. The Notre Dame football team, he said, is using the technology in relation to concussions. UFC fighter Cat Zingano also has used the treatment.
Results are achieved in about 85 percent of those treated, Murphy estimated.
Wells targeted his donation to specifically help SEALs through his Perfect 33 Foundation. He targeted ground-level, face-to-face need. He targeted guys like Norris.
“I saw the results first hand and I was floored,” Wells said. “You know how you’re skeptical on things until you see them? Well, this is spot-on.”
Additional fundraising will help fund mobile units that can bring the technology and treatment to more veterans. To Wells, this is the first inning of the most important nine innings of his life.
“The $100,000 is a good start,” he said. “Now let’s up the ante. Let’s help these guys become better husbands and better fathers. Let’s help them fight those demons upstairs.”