How a Gruesome Surgery Saved Mike Napoli's MLB Career

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistMarch 13, 2015

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

FORT MYERS, Florida — Nights were the worst. You think of a major league baseball player, you think of a dreamy life with plush hotels.

There were no dreams for Mike Napoli. Only fear. In the middle of the night. Alone. When he would jolt awake, several times each evening, because he could not breathe.

"I was always scared to go to sleep," Napoli, the Boston Red Sox first baseman, says on a bright spring day here. "I used to leave the latch on the door in the hotel open. Just so they could get in my room."

They, meaning paramedics and emergency personnel.

"I was like, am I going to wake up?" Napoli says.

That a man whose name includes the word "nap" has been dangerously sleep-deprived for years is more than a little ironic. But it is not funny. Not even close.

Napoli, 33, was one of millions of Americans suffering from sleep apnea, a potentially life-threatening condition, and his disorder was so severe that he says he probably would have retired following the 2014 season had it not been for the bimaxillary advancement surgery he underwent Nov. 4.

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

The surgery sounds excruciating, like something from the Middle Ages: Doctors broke his lower jaw. Broke his upper jaw. Broke his chin. Realigned his jaws, moving, as Napoli says, "everything forward to the max."

The procedure took eight hours. He was in the intensive-care unit for two-and-a-half days. He was on an all-liquid diet for six weeks. He still has plates and screws inside his skull.

Oh, and an incredibly new lease on life.

"It's night and day," Napoli says while sitting on a table on the patio outside the Red Sox clubhouse, another wide-open Florida afternoon ahead of him. "Just me waking up and getting my day started. I actually come here and get my workout in in the morning. I actually want to work out. Where before, I'd get here and I'd be so tired I'd get through a couple of sets and not feel like doing any more.

"I would just try and figure out how I was going to get through my day. The surgery was a brutal process.

"But if I had to do it all over again, I'd do it."

According to the American Sleep Apnea Association, between 50 and 70 million Americans have sleep disorders, with at least 25 million (one in five adults) suffering from sleep apnea.

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

More than 10 million Americans use Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machines at night, according to the ASAA, a number that is growing at an annual rate of 8 percent.

Napoli, the Angels' 17th-round pick in 2000, has struggled with sleep for his entire professional career, and it's been especially bad during the past eight or nine years.

"When I was younger, I think I got away with it just because when you're younger, you can regroup and get through a day better," Napoli says. "The older I got, our schedules are so brutal, just the travel and playing every day.

"It got to the point where I don't know if I could have done it anymore."

He became acutely aware of his problem during the playoffs in 2007, when he was with the Angels, and his mother stayed with him in his hotel room for games in Boston.

Alarmed by his sleeping patterns—he would actually stop breathing many times each evening—she told him he needed to get checked. The results of a sleep study performed on him that offseason were predictable.

"I tried the CPAP when I was younger, but I was, like, 'I can't do this. This is out of control,'" he says. "Wearing a machine blowing air down my throat while I'm trying to sleep.

"I tried it every night but would get frustrated and take it off."

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

By the time he signed with the Red Sox in 2013, he was reaching desperation. He tried the CPAP machine again but just couldn't do it. A contraption over his face at night. Ugh. He tried a mouthpiece. A device that sucked his tongue to the roof of his mouth so that it wouldn't fall back into his throat and block his breathing passage. Medication.

"I was fighting a double-edged sword," he says. "I was tired from the meds, and I wasn't getting sleep.

"It was just crazy."

The sleep study discovered he woke up 40 to 100 times a night. Finally, the surgery in Boston in November was a last resort. Not only was he a few more sleepless nights away from giving up on his career, this was a man who in the middle of many of those nights felt as though he literally was fighting for his life.

He was on pain medication for a good 10 days after the surgery. Mostly, he was able to stay ahead of the pain but occasionally he just lay there in agony.

"It was one of the more brutal things I've been through," he says. "You don't realize what you go through. They cut my bone. They went all through the inside of my mouth."

His mother and friends helped care for him in the immediate aftermath. For three months, basically, he couldn't do much of anything. Couldn't work out. Couldn't even clench his teeth.

He has a chef in Boston who made him shakes and smoothies and pureed soups. He only lost about 15 pounds, kept his protein high and made sure he got the proper nutrients.

He graduated from liquid to eggs, because "I could kind of smush them with my tongue, chew softly. I'd eat eggs every morning, even for lunch sometimes because it was something solid."

BOSTON, MA - MAY 17:  Mike Napoli #12 of the Boston Red Sox makes a catch on a foul ball against the Detroit Tigers in the first inning at Fenway Park on May 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

His first real meal nearly two months after the surgery? A Ruth's Chris steak. Takeout.

"Because it's kind of weird trying to chew in front of people in a restaurant," Napoli says. "And I didn't know how I was going to chew."

He still has two screws he can feel inside of his skull, in his sinus area on either side of the bridge of his nose. Some who are bothered by the discomfort opt for another surgery later to have those removed. Napoli says they don't bother him and he'll probably just leave them there.

Dreams have returned, which he finds interesting because "I hadn't dreamed for eight or nine years because I never went into REM sleep."

"You don't realize how bad it is," says Tracy Nasca, executive director of the American Sleep Apnea Association. "Once that's resolved, he's going to have his life back the way he remembers it 10, 15 years ago. It's a glorious, joyous moment.

"I would just say to Mike, and I'm sure his medical professionals are going to want to do this, repeat the sleep study later to make sure it's resolved."

He is a new man this spring, and the Red Sox can tell.

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

"He looks good," general manager Ben Cherington says. "We're just happy for him.

"I haven't had to go through what he's had to go through with sleep issues, but I know this game is hard enough, and if you're fatigued every day, trying to hit and trying to play, it's hard.

"And doing it in front of 30,000 people a night, you want to feel good, and hopefully, this is going to make him feel better."

Says pitcher Clay Buchholz: "Just talking to him, there were days the last couple of years where he'd come in looking like a zombie. And I'm thinking, 'How is this guy going to hit?'

"Now, he's got a lot more energy. And hopefully, with the injuries out of the way and with added rest, he can really help us out."

Napoli still does not have any feeling in his lower lip, front teeth or the roof of his mouth. Surgeons have told him that can last up to a year, and there is a chance the feeling might never return.

No matter.

"It's crazy how I feel," says Napoli, who hit .248/.370/.419 with 17 homers and 55 RBI in 119 games last summer for the Sox. "When I wake up now, it's like, 'Man, I was in a deep sleep.' I can tell. Just being motivated and wanting to do stuff.

TORONTO, CANADA - JULY 22: Mike Napoli #12 of the Boston Red Sox hits a single in the sixth inning during MLB game action against the Toronto Blue Jays on July 22, 2014 at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

"I can tell when we sit through meetings. We had a long meeting the other day, and usually I'd be dozing off.

"In the meeting I realized, 'Oh my God, I don't have that feeling.'"

Talk about being given a new lease on life. On the road this season, now Napoli can confidently latch the safety chain on his hotel room door and sleep the sleep of a king.

"I've had people ask about the surgery, is it worth it?" he says. "I let them know it takes three months out of your life and it's going to be a brutal process.

"But it's worth it. I let them know that. It's been night and day for me."

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. 

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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