By Donald R. Winslow
SEATTLE, WA – Photojournalist Dean Rutz of the Seattle Times is back at work, and happy to be there, thank you very much. It’s been a long, bumpy road back to the newsroom since late April when he was covering a routine high school baseball practice and a shortstop threw wildly toward third base and the ball struck him in the head, fracturing his skull, nearly killing him. Paramedics said Rutz stopped breathing during the ambulance ride to an emergency room. It was “a very close call,” Times director of photography Barry Fitzsimmons said.
Now, four months later, Rutz says the first thing he asked picture editor Fred Nelson when he walked back into the Times’ building was, “Soooo, what’d I miss?”
“The answer of course was, 'Nothing,’” Rutz wrote to friends. “The Seattle skyline changes faster than anything at the Times.”
That may be a good thing for Rutz – fewer changes to contend with and less to remember. Rutz does remember going to Ferndale, WA, in April to photograph a high school pitcher being courted by the big league scouts, and photographing the pitcher while he was warming up. But it wasn’t the pitcher who beaned him; Rutz was watching the hurler through his camera. It was that wild throw toward third base that Rutz never saw coming. He does remember being hit by the ball and then dropping to his knees and realizing he was still conscious. A volunteer firefighter and a paramedic who were on the next diamond working as assistant coaches rushed to the photographer’s side. At first they thought he might be okay, because he was still conscious. But then he started to fade, and blood came from his ear. An ambulance was called.
And that’s when a bad deal got a lot worse. On the way the ambulance pulled over when Rutz stopped breathing so they could put a tube in him to keep oxygen going to his body. The next thing Rutz remembers is coming back to consciousness in an intensive care ward in a hospital and breathing through a ventilator, with a tube going into his neck.
Fortunately for Rutz he doesn’t remember a couple of seizures that he had in the ambulance and the emergency room at St. Joseph’s Hospital. He couldn’t hear anything in his right ear. Vision in his right eye was blurred. The bruise spread around to his eye, and there was swelling. Doctors at first were pessimistic about how much of his hearing and sight would return or how long it would take. First he had to come off the ventilator and not have any more seizures. Then he was told he was facing at least eight weeks of rest and physical rehabilitation and that he’d need to walk with a cane.
A week later Rutz wrote an eMail to friends to let them know how he was doing and to share his experience. “I know there are some questions as to just what happened,” Rutz wrote. “I think I now have a pretty good sense of exactly what happened: On Thursday I was assigned to photograph Ferndale star Jake Locker, the Huskies’ top recruit, and a potential minor league baseball prospect. He was pitching at Ferndale against Anacortes.
“The game had not begun, and Anacortes was taking fielding practice. I wasn’t even the on the field. I was a good 30 feet off the foul line, behind two fences – one a four-foot fence that runs the foul line, and the other that surrounds the Ferndale dugout. I was photographing Locker in the bullpen, and standing with coaches and other pro scouts.
“According to John Mann, the sports editor at the Ferndale newspaper who saw everything, an Anacortes outfielder overthrew third base high and hard. The ball missed the fence, the scouts and coaches, missed Locker, but struck me square in the right temple. According to Mann, I took the full force of the ball, which didn’t bounce off my head but rather went dead stop, and fell to my side. My skull was fractured above my right ear.
“I knew what happened, and I knew instantly I was in trouble. I knew I was going to black out. One of the pro scouts caught me as I fell. Apparently, that’s when I suffered my first seizure.
“I remember laying on the ground, and joking that the circle of people above me looked like the last scene from the Wizard of Oz. I remember asking for a beer. I remember being paralyzed on my right side slightly.”
Rutz says doctors told him the swelling inside his skull was putting pressure on his optic nerve and that he would not be able to open his right eye for some time. “I just want to tell everyone thank you for your concern, and that I’m going to be okay,” Rutz wrote.
And it was a long road back, filled with therapy, frequent headaches, lots of doctors’ appointments, CT scans, vision that would improve and then blur and then improve again, and all the hassles that come with long-term injury or illness: dealing with insurance companies, employer’s regulations, boredom, frustration, lack of mobility, lack of a recurring daily routine, you name it. But finally, last week, the day came when he was cleared to return to duty.
“I slipped in to work quietly today after my doctors approved the return to work request late Monday,” Rutz wrote to friends in an eMail. “I said a few hellos, and walked out with an assignment. I guess some things really don’t ever change. At least my key card still worked; I wasn’t quite sure when I put it up against the turnstile. Of course, I wonder about that a lot of days. Hey, I’ve been gone so long my parking permit for the company lot had expired.
“There are no immediate restrictions on what I can do beyond common sense. Obviously, with massive head trauma, you want to go slow – and the owner of the chic Bellevue Salon I had to photograph today fit in with that plan very well. There are undoubtedly many business assignments in my future. Still, it’s good to be back.
“I’m a couple of pounds heavier and a whole bunch grayer since April. But the good news is my recovery was nothing short of miraculous. I’m a good three-months or more ahead of what most doctors thought I could do. And thanks to a great neurologist almost three months ahead of what the state would have restricted me from doing in terms of driving (it’s a six-month ban from driving following any seizure).
“I don’t know that you’ll see me too much on the sidelines this fall; I think the (sports) year was pretty much over for me the day I got whacked. Still, I hope to ease into the sports schedule a little later on this fall. Meantime, I plan to get fitted for a nice helmet I can wear for the balance of the major league baseball season. I mean, have you seen Richie Sexson at first? Holy crap, I could get whacked again with a passed ball. (Just kidding, Richie. You know I love ya. And I honestly need to thank the Mariners for their support too, and manager Mike Hargrove for sending over a helmet.)”
The photojournalist says the outpouring of support and help from his friends, coworkers, and photographers all over the world were instrumental in his recovery. “Seriously, thank you all. Every kind word, every prayer, every healing thought or gesture was appreciated more than I can ever tell you,” he wrote. “I want to thank all of you – and so many more I have yet to track down – for your kind words and support all this while. It has meant everything to myself and Karen (Ducey). What a marvelous bunch of people you are.”
Rutz is a frequent contributor to News Photographer magazine. He’s a photojournalism graduate of Indiana University in Bloomington, IN, and was a photographer for The Palm Beach Post and The Washington Times before moving to Seattle. He’s a veteran sports photographer and has covered multiple Winter Olympic Games in his career.