It was the third quarter of a back-and-forth ballgame against one of Handley’s chief competitors for region supremacy. Every play had meaning, each snap could potentially mean the difference in the ballgame. It was the type of game that Handley junior linebacker and fullback Nate Pike lives for.
So when assistant coach Jody Pike, Nate’s father, saw Nate come to the sideline after an otherwise routine defensive play he knew something was up.
That’s when Jody and Nate had a conversation that would send their lives into nine days of chaos that had Jody and the Pikes’ extended family fearing the worst about Nate.
It was a chain of events that rallied a community around a beloved young man and his family, and a story that could ultimately have a very happy ending.
Nate Pike’s medical odyssey began in the first half of Handley’s game against Munford September 4. He took some contact to his left elbow on a play early in the game and started to feel a tingling sensation in his left hand.
At halftime the Handley coaching staff put extra padding on the elbow to protect Pike from further injury.
But in the third quarter that tingling sensation became something much more worrisome.
“He remembers it plain as day that he read screen pass and turned to go to the back that they were throwing the screen to, and he met a guy that was coming down to seal him,” Jody Pike recalled. “After they make contact he realizes his left arm has gone numb.”
So Nate jogged off the field, found his dad and started to explain what was going on. But in the course of that explanation Nate found he couldn’t move his mouth to form the words he was trying to say.
“You couldn’t understand a single word that was coming out of his mouth,” Jody said. “So at that point I said, ‘Man, you’re slurring your words.’
“And he turns to me and grabs me with his right arm, and his left leg went out.”
After a quick once-over by the Handley medical trainer, it became obvious that Nate’s situation needed to move from the football sideline to a hospital quickly.
As the game raged on out on the field, Jody informed head coach Larry Strain what was happening, took off his headset and ran over to the ambulance on standby near the north end zone of Wright Field to let the paramedics know they needed to get Nate out of there.
“At that point I was done with the game,” Jody said.
They traveled to Wellstar West Georgia Medical Center in LaGrange where a CT scan revealed a horrifying diagnosis.
Nate’s brain was bleeding.
That discovery led to quick action on the part of the medical professionals in LaGrange. Within an hour of his arrival at Wellstar, Nate was in a helicopter being flown to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Egleston Hospital.
Figuring out what happened
For the next two days doctors worked to stop the bleeding on Nate’s brain, while simultaneously trying to figure out how it started.
Jody watched the game film to see if he could find a particular hit that could have caused the internal injury.
“I’ve gone back and looked at the film. He’s taken bigger licks than that in the past. There was no vicious lick on the field that got him,” Jody said.
Analysis of Nate’s blood showed that his body was not producing blood cells anywhere near what is considered a healthy rate. It was determined that that low cell count was the main culprit of his condition, rather than an unusually hard hit on the football field.
“And the worry becomes the clotting of the bleed of the brain,” Jody recalled. “That’s when they realized that he had a blood disease. Something was not right with his blood that had caused the bleed and that was not stopping the bleed.”
Once the problem was identified Nate was given medication to help get his cell counts up and allow the brain bleed to stop. That treatment worked as intended, but there was still the unanswered question of why his blood cell counts were so low in the first place.
The doctors narrowed it down to one of two things: leukemia or a more rare, but also potentially more easily treatable malady called aplastic anemia.
After two days of analysis and mostly bad news, the family of Nate Pike finally received a ray of light.
The doctors had ruled out leukemia and said there was a 90 percent chance that Nate’s issues were a result of aplastic anemia, a diagnosis that was confirmed a few days later.
That announcement sent a wave of relief over Nate’s family and brightened the outlook for the immediate and long-term future.
Nate stayed at Egleston for the rest of the week before finally being allowed to return home Saturday. The news was not all rosy, however. The severity of Nate’s aplastic anemia almost certainly meant that he would need a bone marrow transplant, a major procedure that would keep him hospitalized for over a month.
If his brother Ben was a match as a bone marrow donor, Nate would be back in the hospital in two weeks to undergo the procedure.
“When we walked out of that hospital they were saying that his best case scenario was a bone marrow transplant if his younger brother matched him,” Jody said. “And if his younger brother didn’t match then they were going to go with medicine before they went to the bank to find bone marrow. That was the plan of action.”
“He was preparing himself to have about five to six weeks in the hospital without coming out,” Jody said.
But Monday Nate and his family received news that exceeded the best-case scenario.
“They thought he had severe aplastic anemia, but the biopsy came back and it’s not as severe. It’s a moderate aplastic anemia,” Jody said. “His blood counts and all the cells in his blood are higher than what they thought they would be. So they took the bone marrow transplant off the table for now and they’re going to try medicine to correct it.”
Word of Nate’s ordeal quickly spread through the Randolph County community and beyond. Handley students held a special prayer rally one morning last week on behalf of their classmate.
Jody estimates that as many as 60 coaches from Georgia and Alabama have reached out to him to let him know they were praying for him and his family. He said he’s been in Walmart in Roanoke and had complete strangers come up to him to express their concern for his son.
AHSAA executive director Steve Savarese even reached out to coach Strain to check on Nate.
“The community was amazing. They rallied in behind him like you’ve never seen,” Jody said.
Road to recovery
Nate will be monitored routinely over the next several months to make sure his blood cell counts remain where they need to be. Because of his condition, his football season is over.
But almost all of the feeling has returned to Nate’s left side, save some lingering numbness in his hand.
And aplastic anemia is treatable and sometimes curable, so the hope is that the treatment plan will have him ready to return to the field by the start of his senior season next fall.
“They are trying to cure him and get him back to 100 percent,” Jody said. “What keeps him afloat is they’ve said they think they can have him back 100 percent by next year’s football season. Because he loves it. He loves football. So that’s his goal, to get back to where he was before all this took place.”