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 Fàtima. 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.
July 4, 1982
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.
Speech was the first publicly reported breakthrough in Conigliaro's recovery. On the afternoon of May 24 Tony was doing breathing exercises with his respiratory therapist when, at about 4 p.m., she noticed that he seemed to want to talk. The therapist inserted the button that occludes the trache, and Linda Heckman, a nurse in his room, heard him say, "Hi." Mrs. Heckman then summoned Tony's mother, Teresa, from the nearby television room. "Hi, Mom," said Tony when she came in. Mrs. Conigliaro almost fainted. She immediately called her husband, Sal, at home in nearby Nahant and put Tony on the phone.
"Hello, Choo," Sal said, using a childhood nickname.
"Hi, Dad," said Tony.
"I turned into an icicle," Sal said later. Teresa then called her son Billy, 34, and Tony said to his brother, "Hi, Billy." She thought of all the other people she wanted to call but couldn't remember any of their numbers. Brother Richie, 30, went public with the news that Tony C could speak on a Boston talk show that night.
Of course, it was a significant event. Of course, it was a major step forward in his progress. But it was not the miracle—TONY TALKS!—it seemed to be. Most of the news the thirsting public had gotten immediately after the attack had been depressing; also, the public wasn't aware of the small signs of recovery that Tony had shown over the long weeks—the tracking of people with his eyes, the apparent acknowledgment of family members, the primitive attempts to talk. To a family that had monitored his progress for four months, Tony's sudden ability to speak a very short, but lucid, sentence was dramatic. But there was a long way to go.
Everyone on Conigliaro's team—and that's the word used by his family, friends, doctors, nurses and therapists—has his or her favorite memory of Tony's progress. Mrs. Conigliaro remembers the big smile Tony flashed after he overheard her tell one of the nurses she had got her new hairdo "at a supermarket." His therapists remember the day they lowered him into the tub for his bath and he said clearly, "It's hot!" The comment was significant because it involved both language and tactile sense.
His father recalls the first time Tony laughed at one of his jokes. "He likes the raunchy ones especially," says Sal. Billy remembers the time, about five weeks ago, that Tony first caught the sponge ball he had been throwing to him; for four months Tony had either ignored it or reached for it awkwardly.
And everyone in the family remembers the day Davis arrived. When he walked into the hospital room, Tony, who was sitting up in a chair, recognized him immediately. "He must've grinned for a full minute," said Billy. Tony and Davis had known each other from Tony's visits to the Raiders when Tony was a TV sportscaster in San Francisco. Davis told a story about Tony coming to training camp one day as a reporter and spending most of his time tossing a football around with some of the players. Tony laughed. Billy then told of the day Tony, a high school quarterback, threw three interceptions in one game. Tony laughed again. Davis told stories about sports personalities Tony knew—Charlie Finley, Marcus Allen, Vida Blue—and Tony sat there smiling and nodding his head. Later Davis tossed him a ball, and Tony caught it with his right hand, as Billy had been showing him. "Now your left!" Davis ordered. Tony muffed the catch. But after a few more tosses, he caught the ball with his left hand, and everyone cheered. "I think it was the best day Tony's had," says Sal.
But Al Davis doesn't come every day, and the road to recovery is one of low peaks and immense valleys. "Sometimes I go out of the room and I'm real, real down," says Sal, puffing on a cigarette in the hospital lobby. "Then I'll go back in the room and see something he does and I'll be up. That's the way it goes, sometimes daily. Tony's up, then he's down. Tony's up, then he's down."
That's the way it's gone, in fact, for many years. Tony's up, Tony's down. "If anyone ever lived like Joe Btfsplk in Li'l Abner with the cloud over his head, it's Tony," says Bill Bates, a Boston physical therapist and longtime friend. As a 19-year-old Red Sox rookie in May of 1964, Tony C hit the first pitch of his first game at Fenway Park for a home run. Tony up. A few days later a pitched ball fractured his left hand. A month after that he missed nine days when he fell over the leftfield wall in Comiskey Park. A month later he caught a fastball on his right arm and missed about six weeks. Tony down, Tony down, Tony down.
The pitch that nearly blinded him was unleashed by hard-throwing Jack Hamilton of the California Angels in a night game at Fenway Park on Aug. 18, 1967. Two inches higher, his doctors said, and Conigliaro would have been dead. As it was, the blow dislocated his jaw and fractured his cheekbone, causing a cyst to form on the macula of the left eye. He missed the rest of that pennant-winning season, and the following year as well. At age 23, his vision a blur, he was written off. But Tony thought he could make it back as a pitcher. Then, while testing his arm in the Instructional League in the winter of 1968, he discovered his vision had returned almost to normal. He went into the batting cage, and started to make good contact again.
Conigliaro's own ophthalmologist, Dr. Charles Regan of the Boston-based Retina Associates, didn't use the word "miracle" to explain this progress. But in Conigliaro's 1970 book, Seeing It Through, written with the late Jack Zanger, Regan was quoted as saying to Tony: "I can't explain it, but that large hole you had in your eye is gone, except for a small piece of scar tissue." On Opening Day 1969, Tony C hit a home run in the 10th innning to help beat the Orioles in Baltimore, and he won the American League's Comeback Player of the Year award with a .255 average and 20 homers. In 1970 he had his best season with 36 homers and 116 RBIs. Tony up.
But a month after the 1970 season ended, in a move that was both perspicacious and cold-blooded, the Red Sox traded Conigliaro to California. Despite Tony's 1970 statistics, they knew his vision still wasn't normal. In California he was lonely, homesick and ineffective, and he retired abruptly in the middle of the 1971 season. Tony down.
For the next three years Conigliaro ran a nightclub in Nahant on the Massachusetts North Shore. Then, before the 1975 season, he decided to try still another comeback—and the Red Sox agreed to look at him in spring training. Tony was in superb physical condition, but he hadn't played competitive baseball since he walked away from the Angels in 1971. Nevertheless, he won the designated-hitter job, and when he started on Opening Day at Fenway Park he received a standing ovation. But the long layoff and the short, compact swing of rookie Jim Rice, the Bosox slugger of the future, combined to end the comeback. Tony hung 'em up for good in August after spending two months with the Red Sox Triple A team in Pawtucket, R.I. Again, as in 1967, he wouldn't be on a pennant-winning team.
Ironically, brother Billy, an outfielder who was never the star Tony had been, won a World Series ring with Oakland in 1973. Tony up, Tony down.
Conigliaro's calamities obscured a brilliant career. At age 22, Tony C had hit 100 home runs sooner than any other batter in history. Not considering his disastrous 1971 mini-season in California, when limited vision was only one of a host of physical problems, and his brief comeback in 1975, he was a lifetime .272 hitter with 160 home runs and an average of 82 RBIs per year for his six seasons. By comparison, Reggie Jackson hit 188 homers and averaged 88 RBIs to go with a .266 batting average in his first six full seasons—playing 110 more games than Conigliaro. Conigliaro's six-year stats also match up well against Carl Yastrzemski's; Yaz batted .294, hit 95 homers and averaged 77 RBIs.
"Tony wasn't a good ballplayer," says Jackson, "he was a great ballplayer." "There's no doubt in my mind that Tony would be a 500-home-run guy," says former Boston teammate Rico Petrocelli. "He was a natural production hitter, a clutch hitter, an aggressive hitter. And there's no doubt he'd still be playing as a DH." "Tony's like Yaz," says his father. "He would've lasted. He loved his body more than anything else in the world."
A few weeks after quitting Pawtucket, Tony began his career as a sports broadcaster at WJAR-TV in Providence. By 1977 he had moved up to the big leagues with San Francisco's KGO-TV, where he won a local Emmy for sports features. Conigliaro was fired in February of 1980 and hired four months later by rival station KRON-TV, then fired again in May of 1981. Tony up, Tony down.
"In both cases it was a matter of differences over his broadcasting style," says Bill Browne, a sports producer who worked with Conigliaro at KRON. "If he felt management was forcing him to compromise, even a little, he'd snap. And I mean snap. But no one worked harder than Tony. And when he left, we got floods and floods of letters, which is really unusual because people come and go all the time."
Last summer NBC invited Conigliaro to do the color broadcast of a backup Saturday Game of the Week in San Francisco. However, the day before the broadcast, an errant elbow banged into Conigliaro's chin during a pickup basketball game, giving him a bloody nose that kept him in the hospital for three days. Tony up, Tony down.
"You know, with all that happened to him over the years," Billy says, "the only time he was really depressed was when he had to call NBC back and tell them he couldn't do the game."
Tony remained down. He tried to latch on as a minor league batting instructor with the Giants but didn't succeed. "Tony told me they said they'd 'get back to me,' " recalls Dennis Gilbert, Tony's best friend on the West Coast. "It was hard to say no to Tony. But nobody helped him either." From May to September of last year Conigliaro was unemployed and in financial difficulty. He loved California—the weather, the lifestyle, the women (he's a bachelor and had no steady girl friend at the time of his heart attack)—but the bad things were piling up. In December the mud slides washed out Healthwise, the health-food store he co-owned in San Anselmo, 35 miles north of San Francisco.
But on the morning of Jan. 9, 1982, a Saturday, two days after his 37th birthday, Tony felt good. Things had started to change for the better. Again. On his birthday, he had auditioned for the job of Red Sox color analyst on WSBK-TV, and felt he had won the job. "To say that he would've gotten it would be unfair now to the other people," says Joseph C. Dimino, the station's general manager at the time. (Former Red Sox Catcher Bob Montgomery eventually got the job.) "But Tony had an excellent audition and he was certainly the leading candidate. That has nothing to do with sympathy for Tony, either. He looked good on the air, his voice was good, his knowledge of the game was good and he had a following in Boston. He was still a superstar in Boston to the fans."
Things were moving fast that morning. Tony was to leave Boston's Logan Airport on a 10 o'clock flight to Atlanta, where he was to meet with sports agent Mike Trope. Even if he had gotten the WSBK job, Tony was going to manage a new baseball division in Trope's Los Angeles-based International Sports Management, Inc. Tony had been working since September as an agent for Athletic Consultants Inc. in Los Angeles. When Trope's firm absorbed ACI, Trope asked Tony to stay on. From Atlanta he was going on to Puerto Rico and Venezuela to scout ballplayers for ACI. Then he would fly to San Francisco, tidy up his business affairs and, if the Red Sox TV job came through as expected, return to Boston. He was so confident that he had made an offer to buy the house next door to his parents in Nahant.
Normally, Sal would have driven his son to the airport to say goodby, but Tony said that was unnecessary. "I'll be coming home to see you soon," Tony told his father. He hugged his mother and said, "This is going to be the best year ever. You wait and see." He also had something else to look forward to—the first Red Sox Oldtimers' Game on May 1. He piled into Billy's 1980 silver-gray 320i BMW and off they went along Route 1-A for the 20-minute trip to Logan. Inside the house, Teresa Conigliaro, always sad to see her oldest son leave, nevertheless breathed a sigh of relief. "Now I can have a cigarette in peace," she thought. Tony, who jogged five to six miles a day and played basketball almost daily, didn't smoke and drank only wine, and that rarely. He had nagged his mother repeatedly about her smoking.
As the two brothers passed the turnoff for Suffolk Downs Race Track, where their father would be heading later that morning to look after his three racehorses, they discussed Tony C's newest get-rich venture—a mail-order vitamin business targeted for flight attendants called "Sky-Pak." The night before, Tony's mother had taken a call from a stewardess who was helping Tony with the sales, but he hadn't recognized the name. Billy asked him if he had remembered it yet. Tony didn't answer. Billy looked over and saw Tony with his eyes closed, his hands tightly gripped, his head back on the seat. Billy laughed. He thought Tony was trying to imitate the person who called. Then he realized it was no joke. Tony was having trouble breathing. Billy decided he'd better forget the airport and continue on to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. After driving about a mile he saw that Tony's trouble was serious. He was having a heart attack.
Billy's next decision took a second, and he has agonized over it since. He drove on to the hospital, which was about five miles away. Billy had two other alternatives. The airport ramp was near and he could have sought help at Logan. But finding proper medical personnel in the airport maze might have taken longer than the drive to the hospital. Or he could have stopped the car and tried to administer CPR. He decided against that because, as he recounted later, "I didn't want my brother dying by the side of the road."
So off he went, increasing his speed to 85 mph, toward Mass General, feeling for his brother's pulse as he drove. Fortunately, it was Saturday morning, so the normally congested Callahan Tunnel was clear. He went through the tunnel toll-booth without paying the 30 cents but did slow down to shout, "Hospital!" He was dating a nurse at Mass General named Kim Colvin, so he knew a shortcut to the hospital. Once Billy had to step on the brakes, and Tony's head flopped down between his knees; Billy had to lift him back up with one hand.
Although a heart can be restarted, the time the brain has been in a state of anoxia (deprived of the oxygen carried by the blood) can be crucial. Lack of oxygen for as little as four minutes can cause permanent brain damage. Billy figures at least five minutes had passed when he drove up to the emergency entrance of Mass General, jumped out of the car and summoned medical personnel. "There's no pulse!" one of them shouted, and they began CPR. Soon Tony's heart was shocked into beating again, but Billy realized that was only one half of a double-edged sword. Another minute had passed, so Tony had been without oxygen for at least six minutes.
The ride to the hospital had been the most frantic of Billy's life, the ride back from the hospital to Suffolk Downs the longest. "Who is it?" asked Sal Conigliaro when he saw the pain on Billy's face. "Your mother?" Before Billy answered, he handed his father two nitroglycerin pills that he had brought home from the hospital, because of Mr. Conigliaro's own heart condition. Then he told him the bad news. "My God, what else could happen to the kid?" Sal thought.
Only later did the Conigliaros think about the ways they were fortunate. If Tony had been driving alone.... If someone afraid of cranking up to 85 mph had been driving.... If Billy had had an accident.... If it had been rush hour.... If they had gone only half a mile farther and gotten off the exit ramp at Logan.... But for once the worst didn't happen.
The striking down of men and women in the superb physical condition of a Tony Conigliaro is medical science's knuckleball. The precise reason for Tony's heart attack remains a mystery. Heredity (his father underwent a triple-bypass operation three years ago) and Tony's high blood pressure might have contributed. But Dr. Roman DeSanctis, the hospital's director of clinical cardiology and Sal's attending physician, considers neither of these a compelling factor. And Tony's heart has recovered to the point that he's considered a low risk for another heart attack. "He's done very, very well from a cardiac standpoint," says DeSanctis. "It was a small attack with a very major consequence."
The major consequence was the deep coma into which Conigliaro lapsed. There is no way to measure a coma precisely, but DeSanctis feels it was deep for "several days at least." And when Conigliaro came out of the coma, he was still only "semiconscious" for most of his seven weeks at Mass General. The key factor in determining the recovery of a sudden-death patient is the amount of time the patient remains unconscious. One of the country's leading researchers in this area, Dr. Michael Earnest, a Denver neurologist, studied 40 survivors of 100 sudden-death cases. "We had only one or two individuals who remained in coma more than 96 hours and left the hospital," Earnest told Richard A. Knox of The Boston Globe in a May 30 article. "None of those were able to walk, talk or perform self-care. They required nursing-home care or home care supported by nurses." DeSanctis agreed with Earnest's findings.
Tony C, who may have been comatose for at least 96 hours and was close to that condition for seven weeks, has already talked.
On March 1 Conigliaro was transferred to Shaughnessy, a long-term chronic-care facility physically attached to Salem Hospital. The hospital's proximity to Conigliaro's home has allowed his family to visit often; fortunately, there hasn't been another patient in Tony's semiprivate room since he arrived. There is a guest list of about 10 people (no reporters or cameramen) that is changed now and then so that Tony can be stimulated by new faces. Conigliaro has a visitor, and sometimes three or four, daily from about 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Normal visiting hours are 2 to 8 p.m.
Petrocelli, Mike Andrews and Gerry Moses come to see Tony every few weeks. They are the only steady visitors among his former teammates. "You've got to remember that it's tough for a lot of these guys to see Tony as he is now," says Sal. "They remember him as he was." The Conigliaros have received hundreds of calls from players, managers, coaches and announcers. Reggie Jackson called Tony when the Angels were in Boston in May. "I can't wait to see you up and around," Jackson said when the phone was put to Tony's ear. "We're all praying for you." Petrocelli, Andrews, Moses and several of Tony's other friends are planning a testimonial in January or February to help defray some of the hospital expenses. Billy Martin and Jackson have pledged their help, and it's likely that more people from the baseball and entertainment worlds will become involved, too.
For the most part, personnel at both hospitals have gone along with the Conigliaros' wishes, even those that fly in the face of conventional medical treatment. Billy, long an avid reader in fields such as mind control and levitation (Sal used to call him "the mad scientist"), contacted a Russian faith healer when Tony was still at Mass General. The healer waved his arms around Tony for five minutes and said, "Very sorry. I don't feel I can help." Billy also invited a holistic healer named Bob Johnson to visit Tony on the theory that Tony had left his body while he was clinically dead for six minutes. Johnson, who works with the aura around the body, made about 10 visits. An acupuncturist came by, too, but Billy says the treatment was discontinued when the family felt that Tony wasn't responding.
The Conigliaros have insisted on keeping the low-voltage stimulation and nutrient treatments, although they aren't SOP at Shaughnessy. Dr. Edgar S. Miller, an osteopathic physician in Concord, Mass., introduced them to the "Myoflex" machine, which he says can improve the circulation in an injured area, in this case the brain. Billy usually operates the machine and he's "become a real pro," according to Miller. When Billy doesn't do it, Sal does.
The nutrient, which is prepared each day by Tony's nurses, was brought to the Conigliaros' attention one night on a Boston talk show that featured Carlton Fredericks, once the nutritionist for the Kansas City Athletics and a man with 30 years' experience in his field. Fredericks, who has a five-day-a-week program on WOR-Radio in New York City, says the nutrient is called "Octacosanol" and is derived from a concentrate of wheat-germ oil. He says the nutrient has produced positive results in victims of multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy and, in his mother's case, stroke. Fredericks isn't exactly sure why it works—he emphasizes that he's a Ph.D. in health education and not a medical doctor, a distinction that has been brought to his attention many times by skeptical physicians—but there are indications, he says, that it helps repair damaged brain cells. Even though the Conigliaros were the ones who contacted Fredericks, the nutrient couldn't be used unless it was prescribed by a physician. Miller, who was familiar with Fredericks' work, stepped forward.
"We don't know why Tony started to improve," says Sal. "Whether it was the prayers, the nutrient, the therapy, or whether it was just his time. It's impossible to say what has helped and what hasn't. But I don't know why we shouldn't try everything possible."
"Everything that's within reason" is Shaughnessy's official position. And even the hospital has a few special wrinkles for cases like Conigliaro's. For example, some patients are put in orange-colored rooms because psychological studies have shown that patients respond to bright colors; a patient who is, say, hyperactive and in need of rest, not stimulation, would be put in a blue or green room. Room 215 was deliberately chosen for Tony because it faces the North Shore. On a clear day you can see to. Swampscott, where the Conigliaros once lived, and Tony's team hopes he'll eventually respond to the stimulus of a familiar place.
In addition, Room 215 is filled with plants, religious medals and pictures, a plastic baseball player in a batting stance, baseballs, sponge balls, T shirts and other keepsakes sent through the mail. There's usually rock 'n' roll on the radio or a Rodney Dangerfield tape on Tony's cassette. Sometimes he even listens to himself. Early in his baseball career he recorded some rock 'n' roll records of his own. The more positive stimuli, the better for the patient is the hospital's philosophy.
Each day Teresa C opens her son's mail and reads it to him. Again and again she showed him the Bill Gallo cartoon in the May 26 New York Daily News. The paper asked its readers to sign the cartoon, a drawing of Tony, and mail it to the hospital. Since then the Conigliaros have received several thousand of them.
Even Kaulbach, who doesn't believe in the efficacy of either the electrical or the nutrient treatment, concedes that, to a certain extent, "This case is beyond science." Kaulbach has more faith in two other "imponderables": the involvement of the family and its apparent success in stimulating Tony, and Tony's own history of fighting back.
"I wouldn't be surprised if someday it was proven that the input of the family in cases like this is significant," says Kaulbach. "The family handles him, manipulates him, stimulates him. I think that has to be a factor. And I just feel that if you have two patients with the exact same symptoms, and one of them wants to live more than the other, then that person will have a better chance. Of course, that person is Tony C."
Al Davis knows all about going "beyond science." For 13 days he rarely left his comatose wife's bedside. He talked to her. He prayed for her. He read articles about sudden death. He called physicians around the country and flew them in for consultations. And as soon as he heard about Conigliaro's attack, he called Billy at Mass General and left him with this message: "Physicians know very little about this area. It is up to you, the family, to seize the initiative and coax, no, bully Tony back to health. No one else will do it. Visit to follow."
Davis was visibly buoyed after his 90 minutes with the Conigliaros. In his limousine from Shaughnessy Hospital to Logan Airport, where he was catching a flight home to California, he talked about Tony's apparent improvement and the positive involvement of the family.
"The main thing for them to remember is that it gets lonely," he said. "I was lucky. I had the whole country with me, giving me strength. That isn't the case here. It's human nature to be very concerned at first, then have that concern slack off. The family must see that the hope, the will, the prayers are important every day. They have to know that they've left no stone unturned. And they're doing a great job." Kaulbach agrees. "The family has been unrealistic in what it wants for Tony...but wonderfully so."
What will the Conigliaros' good fight ultimately accomplish? The doctors won't even offer a theory. Some of their early pessimism was proven to be premature, so they've stopped the guessing game. But the word "recovery" must be used with caution.
Kaulbach has a 28-year-old sudden-death patient who remained unconscious for several weeks but is now bicycling and helping to care for her son. However, she has undergone substantial personality change. Dr. Thomas B. Graboys, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard who specializes in sudden-death cases, has a 24-year-old patient who is performing most physical functions after several weeks in a coma. But he suffered intellectual impairment. In his Boston Globe article, Knox told of a Minneapolis police sergeant named David Mack who woke up after 22 months in a coma; Mack has a near-normal IQ and can communicate by writing on a pad, but can't speak or move his arms and legs effectively. Again, the ultimate yardstick of hope might be Carol Davis, whose only impairments are a slight memory loss and decreased ability to concentrate for long periods.
Whatever happens, the life of the Conigliaros will never be the same. Even if Tony continues to beat the odds, it's likely he'll need some kind of long-term care. And then there is the financial burden. Hospital bills already have reached the hundreds of thousands of dollars; the first seven weeks at Mass General cost $53,000. Billy sold Tony's share of the health-store business to his partner and also unloaded Tony's six-acre country home in Novato, Calif., but Tony had "almost no money," according to one friend. Tony had continued payments on his baseball and AFTRA insurance, but Sal admits he's worried about the future. The fund-raiser should help.
However, the whole Conigliaro family will always have to deal with that most unanswerable of questions: Why Tony? Why us? But the star-crossed saga of Tony C has tested their will before. Despite some rough moments, their public and private posture is the same—they're resolutely optimistic.
"Four months ago I would've been happy with 25 percent recovery," says Sal. "Three months ago, 50 percent. Right now? I'd be unhappy with under 75 percent." "I'd say 75 percent," says Billy, "and that's about 75 percent more than most people thought at first." "Every day I see some improvement, even if it's only a little bit," says Tony's uncle, Vinnie Martelli, who is extremely close to him. Martelli's face then clouds over with emotion. "You know what I think? I think he's gonna walk out of here."
Given the neurological realities of the case, there's probably no physician who believes as. Martelli does. But that ignores another compelling reality: Every time Tony C has been knocked down, he's gotten back up for another turn at bat.