Heart Surgery for Sag Harbor Knuckleballer

Fund-raiser for Nick Kruel is Friday in Sag Harbor
Nick Kruel’s knuckleball helped Pierson go all the way to the state final in 2014. Jim Stewart

Nick Kruel, a knuckleballer and former star of the Pierson High School baseball team, had a standout summer season pitching for the Sag Harbor Whalers in the Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League and returned to the University of Tampa, where again he made the baseball team. 

“This was going to be his year,” his mother, Sandi Kruel, said.

But, on Friday, Kruel underwent a nine-hour open-heart surgery to repair a bicuspid valve, repair the trunk of the aorta, and remove an aortic aneurysm that had formed — all of which had been diagnosed in late September. 

The 19-year-old sophomore called his mother when his heart was racing and never slowed after a cardio workout at practice. She urged him to dial 911, but he wanted to see how he felt when he got back to his dorm. His roommate, a pre-med student, took his pulse: 230 beats per minute. He was rushed to Memorial Hospital of Tampa, where testing showed he was born with a congenitally defective bicuspid aortic valve, a deformity that causes the valve not to function properly. Doctors broke the news that he would require open-heart surgery. 

“The first word the nurse said to me was ‘I don’t know who got him here, but you need to thank them . . . they saved his life,’ ” his mother recalled. “That was a moment no mother ever wants to hear.”

The valve, which allows blood to flow from the heart to the aorta, can function adequately for many years without symptoms or obvious signs of disease. Kruel passed countless physicals, pitched complete games in high school, and led Pierson to the state Class C final in 2014. Being such an athlete, however, sped up what otherwise may have taken many more years to be revealed. The aorta had thickened and created an aneurysm, his mother said. His heart had doubled in size.

Once stabilized in Tampa, he returned to Sag Harbor, and his mother searched for the best care. Sean Donahue with Eastern Suffolk Cardiology recommended they find a cardiology team that specializes in treating athletes with heart conditions. In Boston, they found care under Dr. Aaron Baggish, the associate director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at the Massachusetts General Hospital Heart Center (as the medical director of the Boston Marathon in 2013 he was just feet away when the first bomb exploded), and Dr. Thomas MacGillivray, the co-director of the hospital’s Thoracic Aortic Center and the surgical director of its Adult Congenital Heart Disease Program. Both men are part of the team that cares for the New England Patriots and Harvard’s athletics program. 

His doctors prepared him for the possibility they would need to replace the valve with a pig valve. They didn’t end up having to, however, because of a successful repair surgery. He came through the procedure well and was already out of the intensive care unit by the end of the weekend. He is expected home for Thanksgiving.

They have given him hope that he will be back on the field, and even introduced him to an athlete who was operated on for the same condition last year and yet is back playing basketball.

While the family is covered by medical insurance, the out-of-pocket expenses have quickly added up and will continue to. A close friend of the family decided a fund-raiser was in order. Mary Bori, whose son Jack is best friends with Nick Kruel, has helped organize a benefit at La Superica restaurant in Sag Harbor for the day after Thanksgiving, with an auction with items like a $200 gift certificate to the American Hotel and a Lego gift basket. 

“It’s been an overwhelming response from the Sag Harbor community,” Ms. Bori said. 

The fund-raiser, with snacks and a cash bar, starts at 5:30 p.m. Wiggleboy (with Robert Schumacher, who teaches at Pierson) will perform at 7 p.m. Entry is $10 per person. 

Being on the receiving end of such generosity doesn’t come easily to Nick’s mother, a longtime school board member who always lends a hand to others, Ms. Bori said. “We forced her to sit back and be quiet,” she said with a laugh. 

Hotels near the hospital can be $300 a night, and both of Nick’s parents have missed work to be by his side. “When Nick does go back to Tampa, she has to go back and get him set up with a cardiologist there,” Ms. Bori said of the mounting bills. 

This isn’t Nick Kruel’s first go-around with serious medical emergencies. At 7, he was diagnosed with cancer after a tumor was found on his adrenal gland. In 11th grade, while playing soccer for Pierson, his ankle was shattered, requiring a nine-inch rod and 12 screws.

“He’s my fighter,” Sandi Kruel said of her son. “That kid has seen more in his lifetime than most.”

Doctors expect him to rebound once again. He is eager to get back to school and could in Florida by January. “He’s already registered for classes,” his mother said, though baseball will have to wait for next season. “But, there’s always next year, and thank God there is a next year.”