SOUTH WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — At some point during Saturday’s U.S. championship game in the Little League Baseball World Series, Thomas Barrett and Chase Anderson will be side by side, Barrett playing first base, Anderson at second.
The significance of that doesn’t escape their parents.
Thirteen years ago, the recently born boys lay in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Children’s Hospital in Greenville, fighting for their lives. Until the trip to South Williamsport, Pa., despite spending the last two summers together at various all-star tournaments, the two families had no notion they faced their separate challenges in the same place.
Consider that another bonus of a trip to the LLWS.
“We were probably sitting in chairs rocking those babies at the same time,” Chase’s mother, Mandy Anderson, said.
Social media spawned curiosity and inquiries that confirmed the two babies were in the NICU at the same time. After North State’s all-stars won the Southeast Regionals to earn a LLWS berth, the Barretts posted a picture of Thomas as a baby on Facebook, sending thanks to Dr. Theodore Koutlas, who performed a life-saving arterial switch.
Thomas Barrett and Chase Anderson started life in the same NICU unit and now are teammates on the North State Little League World Series team.
Mandy Anderson saw the post, and as she rode with Thomas’ mother, Susan, on the eight-hour trip to Williamsport, the time in the NICU came up amid other natural conversation about family and children.
“I mentioned that Chase had also been in the NICU, and we started putting the dates together and realizing that not only were we in the NICU together, but their isolettes were probably right next to each other based on where we figured out they were,” Anderson said.
Mandy suffered preeclampsia, a condition in pregnant women marked by high blood pressure, and Chase was born almost two months early. Since his lungs were not fully developed, he was placed on an incubator for about two weeks, then went home weighing about four pounds.
A day after he was born, Thomas was diagnosed with transposition of the great vessels and underwent open heart surgery. He also went home a few weeks later.
But their roads of recovery were just beginning.
“Whenever you have a child in the NICU, the first few years are very, very rough,” Mandy said. “Chase was a very, very sick infant, so when you look at where they started their life and where they are now, it’s been a remarkable journey.”
Unlike Mandy, Susan had no complications during her pregnancy and no indication that her son had any health issues. Thomas slept in the room with his parents that night, but all their lives changed the next day.
“The doctor came in the next morning, and she actually said, ‘He looks a little dusky.’ That’s word she used,” Tim Barrett, Thomas’ father, said. “I will never forget it. ‘He looks a little dusky.’”
The doctor picked up Thomas and walked out of room, setting off alarms triggered by his armband. The initial diagnosis didn’t pinpoint his condition, but doctors were certain it was heart-related.
“That’s a ball-peen hammer to the face,” Tim said. “That’s a tough thing to hear as a new parent.”
The final diagnosis of transposition of great vessels left the Barretts with no decisions to make — without surgery, little Thomas would die. He stayed in the NICU about a week while his lungs developed, then Koutlas performed an arterial switch procedure.
“That was a tough week, no doubt the hardest week of my life,” Tim said. “They wheel your kid away, and you don’t know if he’s coming back.”
Faith, support from friends and family, and their church (St. James United Methodist) helped them endure, Tim said.
“I honestly don’t know how you get through a week like we went through without that,” he said. “The support we had, the prayers, our in-laws who live four-and-a-half hours away, their pastor came. We just had so much support from the faith community. We felt the love and that people were with us. Hope is a wonderful thing, and if you’ve got hope, you’ve got something.
“On a spiritual level, you wrestle with it,” he said. “I got to the end of that week where I just turned it over — as hard as it was. At some point you have to turn it over and say, ‘You know what, I trust you, and whatever happens is going to happen, and we’ll get through it.’ That’s a hard place to get to. … Even 13 years later, it can evoke emotions, but we’re just very blessed.”
Thomas has experienced no residual effects from the surgery but,still sees a cardiologist periodically. He began playing baseball in Winterville but came to Greenville Little Leagues as an 11-year-old and made the all-star team.
Thomas Barrett with his mother, Susan, and father, Tim.
A muscle imbalance in his back limited what Thomas could contribute, and Tim talked with the coaching staff about replacing him on the team.
“They said they wanted him on the team and wanted him to experience it,” Tim said. “What it did is it taught Thomas how to be a good teammate because that’s all he could do last year. Hopefully it motivated Thomas. He worked really hard in the offseason, and he wanted to come back and have a great year this year.”
Thomas has been a key piece in North State’s run to Williamsport. He hit two home runs in the District 4 championship win over Greenville Tar Heel and delivered a masterful pitching performance in a win over defending regional champion Goodlettsville, Tenn.
After North State defeated Peachtree City, Ga., to advance to the LLWS, Tim looked up Koutlas.
“He, along with the other doctors and nurses at what is now Vidant, gave me the opportunity to have this week at the LLWS in Williamsport with Thomas, and I will forever be grateful,” Tim posted on Facebook. “The last time I saw Dr. Koutlas, he said to send him a Little League picture when Thomas grew up. I haven’t forgotten that commitment, and today I sent him a picture of a Southeast Regional Champ!”
Now at the Little League World Series, Tim is more than a proud father – he is a thankful one.
“I want to say I would have appreciated my first child anyway, but there’s no question that the appreciation level of just life in general and what other people go through in situations like that and the knowledge that some people don’t have the outcome that we had really makes you stop and think a little bit more,” he said. “And then when you have a moment like this when you can say, ‘Wow, none of this could have happened, and how different would our life be.’ It’s hard to wrap your mind around.”
Mandy, a supervisor of physician recruitment at Vidant Health Center, also considers herself fortunate.
“Working for Vidant I’m so proud of the physicians that we have at the hospital and the miracles that they work every day,” she said. “Sitting in the stadium we have two of those miracles. Medicine is good, and God is good. We are families that don’t take things lightly, and this is extremely special for us.”