David Hess knew something was wrong. He just self-diagnosed the wrong thing.
Hess spent most of the 2021 season with the Durham Bulls, who were winning their first of back-to-back Triple-A titles. His Bulls tenure was interrupted by a pair of MLB promotions — one to the Miami Marlins and one to the Rays.
His velocity was up. He was winning games, going 6-2 with the Bulls and 2-2 in MLB. Something, however, wasn’t right.
“Things started to get toward the end of the year,” he starts, struggling for words. “I just haven’t … I started having a lot of shortness of breath. I would get really tired really easily. I started losing weight. Looking back now, those are signs … and I guess symptoms of something bigger going on.”
In 2021, however, shortness of breath meant something else entirely.
“We were coming out of COVID, you know?” he said. “And so I thought maybe, just somehow, I had gotten COVID, and I was just trying to kind of get through it. And my wife was constantly telling me something was wrong. I finally told her when we get to the offseason, and when we get home in October, I’ll go to the doctor and get everything checked out.”
He never made it to the doctor’s office.
“Things progressively got worse and worse,” he said. “We finally did get home, and I went for a walk. … I was trying to go for a run, and I just couldn’t do it. It ended up being a walk, and I ended up coming back home quicker than expected. And I said, ‘OK, I’ll go to the doctor tomorrow.’”
“Well,” he continued. “I woke up the next morning, hopped in the shower and coughed up blood. So I went to the emergency room.”
Hess had a rare form of cancer known as a germ cell tumor.
“We found out that I had a tumor in my chest that was about the size of a cantaloupe, maybe even bigger than that,” he said. “It was pressing on my heart, my lungs, my windpipe. I was breathing at like 15% capacity.”
He was diagnosed in October and had the cancer treated with chemotherapy. He was pronounced cured in late January and able to resume his career.
“I went through all the treatment and thought everything was in the clear, and I went back to baseball,” he said. “I thought everything was great.”
He didn’t return to the field until June, and it didn’t go well. After appearing in four games for Tampa’s extended spring training team — made up mostly of low-level minor leaguers and rehabbing injured players, he returned to Durham. Hess appeared in four games for the Bulls in June and July. He didn’t have the same effectiveness, however, giving up as many runs as he recorded outs (13 each). The Rays released him from the organization on July 11.
It turned out his tumor had one last surprise for him, however.
In May of this year, Hess posted on social media, “The last couple weeks have been a whirlwind for us with this cancer journey that seems to never want to end. We found out that inside my tumor was [a] very rare and very aggressive type of cancer called angiosarcoma.”
Also a rare form of cancer, angiosarcoma develops in the lining of blood and lymph vessels throughout the body. Hess had nodules in his lungs.
“We don’t know if the angiosarcoma initially started as a germ cell tumor,” Hess said two months later, “and those are kind of known for having different components kind of inside of them. We weren’t sure if the angiosarcoma was laying dormant and we couldn’t see it or if it had been mutated by the chemo. But one way or another, it started to kind of latch onto my lungs.”
Hess had to have a lung removed, and he’s undergoing treatment for the angiosarcoma. He faces another surgery to remove the tumor, but he’s hopeful everything will be in remission by the fall.
“If all goes according to plan,” he added.
Hess is leaning on his Durham experience to help him through his battle with the disease. While he was with the Bulls, fellow reliever Tyler Zombro was hit in the head by a 106-mph line drive and underwent emergency surgery. Zombro is currently attempting a comeback in the Texas Rangers organization.
“It was one of the scariest moments of my life,” Hess said. “(Zombro) was one of my best friends, and there was a lot of scary stuff that came from that. But our team rallied behind him. Our team slogan was, ‘Keep going,’ and that was a big thing that inspired us. And that’s something I’ve kind of adopted going into this.
“You’re going to have good days and bad days,” he continued. “The treatment you’re going to have will have a lot of rough moments. You have to find the small victories that are going to help you keep going.”
David Hess is fighting the toughest battle of his life, but he isn’t giving up any time soon.
“As humans, we’re very resilient,” he said. “We can keep going. We can push through a lot more than we think. So even when it seems really dark, there’s always a light at the end. You just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
A GoFundMe page has been created to help David Hess with his medical expenses.