Eagles' Patterson, healing after brain surgery, determined to play

Posted: April 15, 2012

The front of Mike Patterson's T-shirt turned a darker, damper shade of gray as he pushed further into his workout.

Standing on a soft mat, his feet sinking in as if in sand, the 300-pound Eagles defensive tackle sprinted in place, arms pumping and knees high, for a 15-second burst, then rested for 45 seconds, and sprinted again.

His unruly hair - some teammates compare it to a grizzly bear's - mostly conceals the scar that begins at his right ear and runs up the side of his head, cutting a path that ends roughly a third of the way across the front of his skull.

Patterson isn't training at full capacity just yet, but he said he's close. Having missed just one game in his career because of an ailment, he plans to be back on the field when training camp opens in late July, roughly six months after the surgery in which doctors cut away a piece of bone on his head and removed the tangle of blood vessels, an arteriovenous malformation, on his brain that caused a frightening seizure in August.

"I just want to go out there and show people that no matter what you go through, you still need to stand up and continue to fight," Patterson said Friday. "I love football, so I just want to continue to play."

Patterson isn't expected to be ready in time for offseason practices, which begin in May - "doctors have their orders," he said - but he feels "excited" about camp and expressed no concern about resuming hitting, even after the surgery.

"You break bones in this game all the time, they'll heal back eventually," Patterson said. "I don't think that it was a question in my mind [that] if I'm hit in that area again, that something is going to happen."

Patterson, nicknamed "The Grizzle" for his hirsute appearance, hates sitting out. He had played in every game during the first six years of his career, except one in which Andy Reid rested his starters. Patterson's training camp seizure and the discovery of the arteriovenous malformation didn't stop his run, either. He started every week in 2011 until he came down with the flu the day before the Eagles' final game on New Year's Day, and the team ordered him to sit.

"I really wanted to play, too," Patterson said.

On Jan. 26, Patterson was at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix under the care of Robert Spetzler, a renowned specialist on arteriovenous malformation.

With Patterson asleep under anesthesia, doctors shaved a patch of hair, opened up his skin and drilled into his skull to reach the tangle of vessels behind his right eye, removing them and sealing off nearby veins. The bone they had removed was reattached without the use of screws or plates, Patterson said.

"It was six hours long, but it seemed like it was 30 minutes, to tell you the truth," he said.

When he awoke, Patterson's face was swollen so badly his right eye was closed.

"Like I got hit by Tyson or somebody," he laughed. "Kind of like an Igor look."

After three nights, though, Patterson went home from the hospital. Within two weeks the swelling had subsided and he was back to light training, aiming to rejoin his teammates at training camp at Lehigh University.

Even this long after his seizure, Patterson's good health seems remarkable.

On Aug. 3, a typical training camp morning, Patterson fell to the ground during a break in drills, stricken for an estimated four minutes.

He had been talking to defensive line coach Jim Washburn, and the next thing he knew he was in an ambulance, with Eagles assistant athletic trainer Chris Peduzzi nearby.

"I was just kind of laying there like, 'What just happened?' ... They kind of just told me I had a seizure. I really didn't know what to expect then."

Within hours doctors had diagnosed the arteriovenous malformation.

It's a "very rare" condition, said Michelle J. Smith, who specializes in vascular and endovascular neurosurgery at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. When someone has it, he is usually born with it, but may not experience any symptoms. The arteriovenous malformation can grow over time.

"When it presents in adulthood it was probably there for many, many years but never was symptomatic," said Smith, who was not involved in Patterson's treatment.

Even immediately after the incident, Patterson said he never worried deeply about his career.

"No one ever really said I'm going to have to quit playing football . . . as long as those words never came out, I was pretty happy," he said. "It wasn't on my mind, because I don't like to take myself there . . . getting yourself worried for no reason."

Patterson's agent, J.R. Rickert, said, "Once he knew he was going to be OK health-wise, the next question was, 'OK, can I continue to pursue something I love doing?' People didn't believe it when it first came out he wasn't going to miss any time."

But there he was, conditioning with the team 10 days after his seizure, returning to practice a week after that, and playing in an Eagles preseason game against the Browns on Aug. 25. He quickly notched a sack.

In film review that week, defensive coordinator Juan Castillo paused the video after the play and with typical gusto climbed over the tiers of seats in the Eagles meeting room to congratulate Patterson.

Patterson, taking anti-seizure medication, had no further medical problems and turned in a strong season. Teammates voted him winner of the Eagles' Ed Block Courage Award.

Recently he has worked with children at a Center City charity affiliated with the Eagles and the award, the Children's Crisis Treatment Center, which helps children with behavioral challenges or who have experienced abuse or other trauma.

In September, Patterson spoke by phone with Kyle Van Atta, then a high school senior in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., who had also suffered a seizure as a result of an arteriovenous malformation.

"I just feel like I was blessed in so many ways," Patterson said, "being able to continue to play ball."


Watch Eagles defensive tackle Mike Patterson talk about the surgery in which doctors cut away a piece of bone on his head at www.philly.com/patterson

 


Contact Jonathan Tamari at 215-854-5214, jtamari@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @JonathanTamari.

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