TRAVELERS REST, SC — Today, Andrew Brown sees the big picture. But that's mostly because he had that brief window a year ago that lasted, what, two hours? Maybe three? He had trouble seeing through that window, because he had trouble seeing at all.
And for the better part of three days, he wondered, and his parents wondered, and they all worried to different degrees. A stroke? He was 16.
This past week, in the peace of the library at Travelers Rest High School, Andrew Brown reflected on the experience.
The fifth of Rex and Suzanne Brown's seven children and a junior at TR, Andrew is doing well academically, playing baseball and coming off another splendid season of basketball, all of which he appreciates like never before.
"I'd always heard people say that it can be taken away at any time, don't take it for granted, and I guess once this happened, that really hit home," Andrew said.
"I think God has a plan for certain people, and I don't think he's through with Andrew yet," said Travelers Rest boys basketball coach Josh Mills. "I think he's got a little bit more in store for him, and I think it's going to be phenomenal to see what he does in the future."
On the morning of March 20, 2013, Andrew came out of the shower and felt dizzy.
"The world was just kind of tilting," he said. "It was my vision more than anything, but that made it really hard to walk, so I was kind of staggering."
"When I looked down the hall, he was sort of holding the wall with his head tilted over, trying to come down the hall," his mother said.
In his mind, staying home wasn't an option. Andrew, who maintains a 4.3 grade-point average and is in the top 10 of his class, had a test in a dual credit sociology class through Greenville Tech that day and was determined to take it.
Suzanne Brown said she asked all the normal "mom" questions regarding health and came up empty, so while Andrew usually drives himself to school, she settled on driving him. And she called Mills and asked him to check on Andrew after the test, which didn't go so well.
"I had a real hard time filling in the bubbles," he said.
"He made a 62 on that test," Mills said. "That's the lowest grade he's ever made. But the teacher did allow him to retake it."
After the test, Andrew headed to Mills' office.
"I was confused," Andrew said. "I was worried while it was going on, just because I didn't know. ... Is this going to last forever? I had no idea what was going on."
"He's coming down the hallway, and he's having to lean on the wall because he's so off-balance," Mills said. "So I called Suzanne immediately, and I said, 'You need to take him to the doctor.' "
Suzanne had made an appointment with the pediatrician for later that morning, so she picked Andrew up and took him home.
"He was very, very tired and lethargic at that point," she said. "He went to bed and went to sleep."
"I woke up, and it was completely gone," Andrew said. "I was completely normal at that point."
They went to the pediatrician, who did a battery of tests that came up negative. Still, he called a specialist, who suggested — "Thankfully," Suzanne said — that Andrew have an MRI done.
So they headed to an imaging center, which is where Rex Brown met them. When the MRI was complete, the radiologist asked if the parents could step into his office.
"He had the images up on the screen," Rex Brown said, "and he pointed to a little white spot sitting on top of the brain, and he said, 'That's a stroke.' And we were like, 'What?'"
"At first, I was floored," said Suzanne Brown. "This wasn't what we were thinking. Really? Can this happen?"
Andrew was particularly taken aback.
"There was nothing wrong with me," he said, "and they told me I had a stroke."
Dr. Addie Hunnicutt, a pediatric neurologist for the Children's Hospital of the Greenville Health System, said a stroke is definitely uncommon for someone so young, occurring in three to eight persons per 100,000 under the age of 18.
"A stroke in general happens a fair amount, but it's usually in neonates," she said. "For an otherwise healthy teenager, that was definitely unusual."
Andrew and his parents gathered themselves, headed to the parking lot and prayed.
"We said, 'God, we don't know where this is going or what you've got us here for, but it's in your hands and we're going to do our best to trust in you through the whole thing.' And that's what we did," Rex Brown said.
Next, the family spoke with a pediatric neurologist, who suggested another MRI at Greenville Memorial Hospital. Andrew and his father headed there, and his mother went home to gather things for Andrew for an overnight stay, not knowing exactly how many nights. As Rex Brown said, at that point there was a "fear of the unknown."
Other than the medical end, Rex Brown said the first call they made was to Mills, and the word spread quickly to the TR community.
"It really made us feel good about where we live and our community," Rex Brown said. "People really just step up. We had a lot of calls, a lot of notes. People came by the hospital, and that helped him get through the days."
Andrew was in Children's Hospital until just after lunchtime Friday, undergoing a battery of tests along the way.
Suzanne Brown said there are three things they look for with regard to causes: heart problems, clotting or blood disorders (Andrew saw an oncologist hematologist specialist and these were ruled out) and family history.
"But there was just nothing," she said. "The unknown was actually the best and the worst. The Lord just said, 'This is where we are. We're going to do this, and we don't know why, and we may never know why.' But it was also better than any of the other three things."
"After three days," Rex Brown said, "the diagnosis was that it was a cryptogenic stroke, which basically just means there isn't a reason for the stroke."
And Hunnicutt said that's a good thing.
"There are a lot of things that can cause stroke, but to not be able to find why that happened makes a person's risk of repeat stroke less," the doctor said.
During the three days, the only test that came up with a negative result was one for cholesterol Thursday morning. Andrew's was unusually high.
It turned out there was a reasonable explanation. He had been unable to eat throughout the previous day until, at midnight, his buddies sneaked some food into the hospital for him — as in three cheeseburgers and half a box of donuts. Six hours later, he had the cholesterol test. Naturally, it went about as well as the sociology test the day before.
Andrew was released from the hospital Friday, and he went to his team's baseball game later that day, just to watch. He pretty much sat around all weekend and returned to school Monday.
By Wednesday, he was champing at the bit, and because doctors could find no reason to prevent him from competing, he was released to do so at around 5 p.m. that day, shortly before the Devildogs were to play baseball at Christ Church.
"Before they were going to release him," Suzanne Brown said, "I sat on his bed, and I said, 'Do you understand that this didn't have to turn out this way? There are many, many people who this happens to, and they don't ever walk, or shoot a basketball, or drive a car, or talk, and for whatever reason, the Lord's shown mercy on you.'
"He never had the adult perspective, all the things we know as adults that could happen, not that you walk around living in fear, and I was thankful for that. But we wanted him to have a healthy understanding of what had happened and what could happen."
Suzanne Brown didn't go to the game that day, never imagining that Andrew would play. Rex Brown arrived late. He, too, figured Andrew would be there just to support his teammates.
But with TR leading in the bottom of the seventh, Andrew, who pitches in relief, entered the game. Rex texted Suzanne.
"I was thinking, 'Oh, my word, you've got to be kidding. I thought he was just going to watch,' " she said.
"It was hard to put him back in the field, because you didn't know what was going on," said TR baseball coach Brian McKitrick. "But when the doctor cleared him, and Andrew was like, 'Hey, I want to play,' it's hard to hold him back.
"He changes us. Whether Andrew plays or not in baseball, he will always be on the team for what he brings mentally and how he leads people just by being there, being in the atmosphere."
Of course, Andrew liked being in the game.
"It was just a relief that I was able to get back on the field or do anything athletically," Andrew said. "I was just so happy to be able to play at that point."
It was merely a bonus that he struck out the side.
"It was strange and exciting at the same time," said McKitrick. "Having that stroke, you were afraid something was going to happen. Then it was exciting because of the success that he had.
"It was a great moment. It's one of those things that gives you tingles on your spine."
It was both a continuation and the beginning of a new chapter.
After checking with three doctors and paying a visit to the Children's Hospital in Charleston for clearance, Andrew played basketball — his No. 1 sport — through the summer and the winter, helping Travelers Rest to its first region title in seven years and earning Greenville County Co-Player of the Year honors in the process.
He was concerned about what college recruiters might think, but he has a scholarship offer from Furman University, he's spoken with coaches from West Point, Penn and Columbia, among others, and he's had those fears relieved.
As for any fear about his health, Andrew said he never worried about it on the mound or the court.
"I knew if something did happen, it would be so sudden I wouldn't have any warning anyway," he said. "There was no reason to worry about it. You can't stop it if it happens again."
He's had no aftereffects, which is rare, Hunnicutt said, because the majority of the children she treats for strokes have persistent symptoms.
"Most people have weakness on one side of their body," she said. "We see that causing cerebral palsy typically, because the majority of strokes (in young people) occur in neonates. You could lose part of your vision. You could have issues with balance, depending on where the stroke is. Everything for the brain is dependent on the location in the brain that the stroke is affecting."
Yet Andrew is unaffected. He realizes he is fortunate. He takes a quarter of an adult aspirin each day, the only tangible reminder of the episode. But the intangibles remain with him.
"God blessed me. I truly believe that," he said. "Before every game I found myself laughing, because I was just so happy I could play. God has a plan. There's no other way to put it. There's no other reason I can still do everything I can do."
It's all very clear to him now.