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A stroke turned his World Cup into a nightmare. A medical ‘miracle’ saved his life

Tristan Torbett was perfectly healthy, or so he thought, until he awoke from an in-flight slumber somewhere above the Pacific Ocean and couldn’t move his right limbs.

(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports illustration)

By the time he went careening through Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, his wheelchair weaving through locals, his emergency aides shouting for help, Tristan Torbett’s brain was fighting for survival.

Torbett was 23 and perfectly healthy, or so he thought, when he set off on a four-leg journey to Malaysia in September for the World Deaf Football Championships.

He brimmed with excitement and pride — until he awoke from an in-flight slumber somewhere above the Pacific Ocean, en route from Los Angeles to Taiwan, and couldn’t move his right limbs.

He shrugged off the curious numbness. He eventually ambled to an airport gate, for one final flight to Kuala Lumpur. A soccer pinnacle awaited.

But then came vomit. Then gibberish. And thus began a frantic dash through a foreign land, a crisis that spooked the U.S. Deaf Men’s National Team, and a race against a ticking clock.

Matt LaCourse, the team’s traveling physician, examined Torbett after one vomiting episode. LaCourse noticed right-side weakness and a facial droop. So he activated a makeshift emergency action plan. He couldn’t read Mandarin airport signage nor dial 911, so he and a few team staffers lifted Torbett into a nearby wheelchair, and they took off running. They sped past hundreds of travelers, their backpacks bobbing, their hearts pounding, Torbett’s head down. Assistant coach Billy Phillips pushed and helped clear crowds.

After five endless minutes, they found an airport rep, who directed them to an airport medical clinic. Before long, an ambulance arrived. It carried Torbett, a bright and laid-back Floridian, to Taiwan Landseed International Hospital, where the light within him continued to dim. As his aphasia worsened, brain scans confirmed what LaCourse first feared. Torbett’s blood had clotted. He’d suffered a stroke. His typically sharp brain was starving, deteriorating. Each minute without blood flow upped the risk of irreversible damage.

Adam Quigley, an athletic trainer, and Jackie Jones, an American Sign Language interpreter, had accompanied Torbett to the hospital. They stood by his side, comforting his increasingly lifeless body, deciphering Mandarin medical forms, trying to accelerate the hospital’s emergency response.

And half a world away, Torbett’s parents and brothers waited, breathless and terrified.

Quigley and Jones had been updating them. As hospital staff wheeled Tristan into an operating room, Quigley called his mom, Julie, for consent to move forward with a high-stakes surgery. The surgeon, Dr. Zhao Yandong, explained in fluent English that he’d wire a tiny tube up through Tristan’s insides to manually dislodge the clot. But there were no guarantees; the procedure, a thrombectomy, is relatively new and highly technical. Failure, and a Plan B, were in play.

“Do whatever you’ve gotta do,” Julie told Zhao from her home in Chattanooga, Tennessee, trembling as she spoke. “We’ll pay.”

Zhao, through a surgical mask, signed off with a blunt promise: "I will try to save your son's brain."

A childhood dream

Tristan Torbett grew up dreaming, just like thousands of American kids, of soccer’s fabled pinnacles. He had two goals as he roamed the mountains and fields of western North Carolina: to play professionally, and to represent his country. He climbed the local ladder. He set his sights overseas. And then he realized, as most teens do, that a life-changing jump to a European academy wasn’t realistic.

So one dream gradually faded. But another lived. Because Tristan, like thousands of American kids, also grew up with impaired hearing.

It didn’t define his childhood. “We never wanted him to lean on being deaf as anything other than a gift,” says his father, Dave. “So we never really put him in an environment where he felt like he was treated differently.” He adventured, played, laughed and spoke just like his older brothers did.

After two years of community college in Wilmington, North Carolina, though, he chose to explore his deafness. He enrolled at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., where ASL and written English are the official languages. He knew he’d struggle. His brothers worried. But after a semester, they saw him “blossom.” He learned to sign. He embraced the deaf community. And he found his path to a new pinnacle.

He heard from a coach and Gallaudet teammates about USA Deaf Soccer, which had been sending national teams to world championships and Deaflympics for decades. Torbett joined the men’s team, which the U.S. Soccer Federation adopted in 2022. The move was part of a broader effort to expand the federation’s “extended national team” portfolio, to support soccer in all its forms, for people of all abilities. It allowed Torbett to wear the U.S. Soccer crest, the same one from childhood dreams.

And in retrospect, it might have helped save his life. The deaf national team used to travel with just two coaches, one athletic trainer and one volunteer interpreter, on a fundraised budget. It embarked for Malaysia with three coaches, two paid interpreters, two trainers, a sports medicine physician, a manager and 22 players, all backed by a $180 million organization.

They all connected at Los Angeles International Airport after months of preparation. Dave Torbett remembers Tristan running, swimming and training even in extreme summer heat, between long shifts at his landscaping job in Southwest Florida. When father dropped son off at a local airport on Sept. 17, there were no nerves, just readiness.

And then, the following evening, with a cigar lit and another blessed day winding down on his back porch, Dave Torbett received the call that every parent fears.

(Photo courtesy of Torbett family)
(Photo courtesy of Jackie Jones)

‘Are you OK?’

Tristan slept through most of the 14-hour flight to Taiwan. He stirred with three hours left, but his right arm and leg remained dormant. When meal service started, he tried to order; but whatever words and sounds tumbled out of his mouth made no sense. He felt disconnected. Confused.

He drifted back to sleep after eating. As the plane touched down in Taoyuan, he awoke, and puked into a seatback barf bag. But his arm and leg also awoke, so he assumed he was simply sick. And sickness, of course, was nothing more than a minor ailment he’d push through, just as he has for years on a soccer pitch.

So he walked with weary teammates to their layover gate, then around the terminal to pass time. But as he walked, he veered right — which became an early red flag. He stumbled into a moving walkway. A teammate had to help him off. Back at the gate, he sunk clumsily into a seat. And that’s when he puked again.

Quigley, the athletic trainer, heard the sloshing sound of vomit and went to check on Torbett. “Are you OK?” Quigley asked. “What’s going on?

Torbett responded with murmurs. He later progressed to random words that didn’t connect. When Quigley took him to the bathroom, Torbett gave what Quigley describes as an incoherent halftime speech. He also dropped a bottle cap in a urinal, then picked it up to put it back on. He was moving and acting almost drunkenly — but hadn’t been drinking.

So a team staffer contacted LaCourse, the physician, who hurried from an airport breakfast spot back to the gate. They called urgently for an interpreter, hoping sign language might solve Torbett’s incoherence, and Jones arrived to join LaCourse in a crouch. Torbett, though, could only stare back at them, dazed, slumped, pained.

LaCourse proceeded with a basic neurological exam. He detected right-arm and right-leg weakness, which, coupled with a facial droop and slurred speech, made sirens blare inside his head. These were all classic signs of a stroke — a sudden, life-threatening attack on the brain. And every minute sans treatment could prove costly.

So off they went, racing through the airport’s early morning rush, in search of a red cross or something, anything, that might direct them to a medical facility. They finally found one that felt much like an elementary school nurse’s office. They relayed Torbett’s symptoms using a translation service. One doctor spoke English, and eventually accompanied Torbett through customs, toward the ambulance. Jones and Quigley followed. All three received unexpected passport stamps.

LaCourse stayed behind, and it was there, at the medical station, that he had contacted his bosses at U.S. Soccer, then called Tristan’s father, Dave.

Dave feigned calm as he relayed the murky news to Julie and their other sons, Nate and Colby — but all three saw through his well-intentioned facade, and tried to stave off panic.

“It's like hearing that your brother's in a fight in the next room,” Colby explains; his gut reaction was: let’s go help. “Except the thing that he's fighting, you have no idea what it is,” Colby continues. “And, he's on the other side of the planet.”

Tristan Torbett (middle) with Jackie Jones (left) and Adam Quigley. (Photo courtesy of Torbett family)
Tristan Torbett (middle) with Jackie Jones (left) and Adam Quigley. (Photo courtesy of Adam Quigley)

‘Miracle treatment’

As the ambulance rumbled south, about 20 miles west of Taipei, Jones reached out a hand to comfort Tristan. He was wrapped in a light-blue blanket, strapped to a cot, and showing increasingly few signs of the kind-hearted kid Jones had come to love. In her soothing Southern drawl, she tried to speak life into him. But Tristan had stopped responding. An IV dug into his left arm. A blood pressure monitor squeezed his right. His eyes were closed. And fear set in.

It was aggravated, naturally, by unknowns and foreignness. Landseed Hospital stood two steps off a city street. Its emergency intake room was tiny. Its nurses were captivated by Torbett’s blond-haired, blue-eyed Americanness — while Jones and Quigley, navigating language barriers, were struck by random differences surrounding them. This, they realized, would be nothing like an ER visit in the United States.

Back in the States, the Torbetts also worried. They knew nothing about Taiwan or its medical system; nothing about the type of care Tristan would receive. But as they scrambled for information, anxiously Googling Taiwanese medicine, they realized he'd likely stumbled into capable hands.

Hospital staff whisked him away for a CT scan. Initial assessments suggested the stroke was minor. But as they waited for medicine to kick in, Jones and Quigley noticed symptoms worsening. They flagged their concerns to English-speaking doctors. A second assessment, followed by an MRI, confirmed a moderate-to-severe ischemic stroke. And that’s when so-called neurointerventionalists swooped in with the “miracle treatment.”

A generation ago, Torbett might’ve been helpless. A decade ago, he’d have been at the mercy of tPA, a clot-dissolving drug. But here, in a developed country in 2023, emergency responders routed him to a hospital capable of performing an endovascular thrombectomy (EVT).

Neurologists pioneered the revolutionary procedure throughout the 2000s. Five major clinical trials published last decade showed that EVTs nearly tripled the odds of complete recovery, and more than doubled the odds of return to independent life after a stroke. Governments and medical institutions moved quickly to recommend and adopt the surgery. But as with any novel medical intervention, uptake has been slow. Neuroradiologists, neurosurgeons and neurologists have to learn the procedure. Emergency medical systems have to adapt at multiple levels to funnel eligible stroke victims to qualified experts. One recent study found that less than 3% worldwide actually received thrombectomies. In the U.S., the rate of access was 37.9%; in Taiwan, it was 9.7%; in Malaysia, it was 4.7%; in Mexico and Pakistan, Kenya and Indonesia, and in most low-income countries, it was less than 1%.

But at Landseed, Zhao and his team were equipped with the proper tools and training. Guided by imaging of Torbett’s brain, they penetrated his arteries and pushed a microcatheter up through his body. They extracted the clot, and restored blood flow. They soon predicted that Torbett would be able to fully recover.

Hours later, as anesthesia waned, Torbett regained consciousness and a flood of hazy memories. He wiggled his right hand, and — wow, it could move. He recognized Jones and Quigley at the foot of his bed, being briefed by Zhao on the successful surgery. Zhao looked up, noted Torbett’s semi-alertness, and flashed a smile.

“Oooh, still handsome!” he quipped with a cheery glow.

Jones began to cry as Torbett’s fog slowly lifted. She rubbed his shoulder as Quigley asked for, and received, a thumbs up. By the following day, though still impaired, Torbett’s typical light had returned. Jones and Quigley entered the ICU during visitor hours to find him upright, drinking and smiling. He could talk, and eat, and listen, and even sign.

Quigley whipped out his phone to capture the remarkable turnaround. “Hi Mom,” Tristan said into the camera with a gentle wave. Quigley sent the video off to Tristan’s family, as proof that he was alert and oriented — and Julie, still shaken, couldn’t play it; because she was somewhere above the Pacific, in-flight, en route to see her baby.

Rush to Taiwan

Julie, Nate and Colby all had similar reactions when Dave rang with the shocking news. They rattled off a few futile text messages to Tristan, then told whomever would listen: Get me to him. U.S. Soccer coordinated crack-of-dawn flights for Julie and Nate the following morning. Colby, like Dave, didn’t have a passport, so he frantically asked the internet: How quickly can I get one?

He found an appointment at a State Department passport agency in Atlanta. He drove four hours from his home in Asheville, North Carolina, through darkness, to procure one the very next morning. And he, too, was on his way to Taiwan by the end of the day.

When they all arrived at Landseed, after 24 harrowing hours, they flung themselves onto their son and brother, wrapping him in hugs. And then, on each successive day, they marveled at his progress. Tristan churned through physical therapy. He laughed at his brothers’ inside jokes. He savored his private hospital room, its heated toilet seat and its view of nearby mountains. On his last full day, he ventured out into Taiwan and explored.

He also learned about the source of his stroke. A transesophageal echocardiogram (TEE) found a hole in his heart. Every human is born with the hole; roughly 75% close, but Tristan’s never did, and this so-called PFO caused the clot.

It’s unclear whether 14 immobile hours in an airplane also contributed. Julie fretted about this potential connection as they planned their trip home. But a first-class ticket and specialized in-flight care eased their worry. They made it unscathed to Chattanooga, where Tristan stayed with Julie for a week — and where he finally recharged and turned on his phone.

A backlog of notifications inundated him. Among them were messages from teammates, who’d received one brief video of Tristan from the day after surgery, but remained concerned. Privacy considerations left them wondering what had happened during that fateful layover. In Malaysia, they placed Torbett’s No. 4 jersey over an empty seat in their locker room. Starters held it up when posing for their traditional photo before games.

Then, one day while heading down to lunch, goalkeeper Erik Jaspers’ phone started buzzing. It was Tristan, his would-be roommate, via FaceTime, unannounced.

“Dude, what's up?!?” Jaspers exclaimed.

He eventually passed his phone around the meal room, first to staff, including Quigley, then to teammates. Some were overwhelmed by emotion. All were relieved.

Torbett wished, desperately, that he could’ve been there beside them, exploding up and down the wing, fighting for a world championship. But by then, he’d come to terms with the realities of post-stroke life. He’d go on medication to fully dissolve the clot. He’d return to Florida, where he lives with his dad; but not to his standard routine. He’d return to work, but not to anything strenuous. He’d wait three months, keeping his heart rate low. A procedure to close the PFO would eventually clear him to return to normal activity, and perhaps even to soccer. But the interim would fill with thick, messy feelings that Torbett didn’t quite understand.

(Photo courtesy of Torbett family)
(Photo courtesy of US Soccer)

‘Why?’

Tristan and Dave reunited with a bear hug at a full family gathering in Asheville, then settled back into life down in Florida, weeks after the stroke. Tristan tiptoed into light manual labor, renovating the 200-acre property on which he works — but he itched to do more. He hated all the precautions. On one particularly difficult day, he wandered outside, stared up at the sky, and asked: “Why?”

“I'm 23 years old,” he says now. “I should not have had a stroke. I should not have to have a heart surgery.”

He’s grappled with that question, why, in the months that have passed since Sept. 19. He occasionally feels anger and grief, pangs of injustice. “He doesn't hide those things,” says Dave, who encourages the openness. But sometimes they need to stew; sometimes Tristan will go quiet.

And in his solitude, in his soul, he has accepted that there is no reason, no satisfactory answer. So he has shifted his focus to what he does know: that he is loved, and supported, and able, and alive.

“It’s borderline short of a miracle,” he says.

And for all of that, he is thankful. Thankful for Jackie Jones and Adam Quigley, for Matt LaCourse, for U.S. Soccer, for the entire national team staff. He is thankful for Zhao and the Taiwanese doctors. Thankful for modern medicine. Thankful for emergency responders, and for the crazy confluence of luck that saved his life.

He is angry, still, that a stroke stole his world championships; but thankful, now, that his clot has fully dispersed. Another TEE this past Monday cleared him for heart surgery on Friday, which will place him on a path to full health. He hopes to eventually return to the deaf national team. He has even pondered trying out for U.S. Soccer’s CP team — another extended national team that welcomes players with Cerebral Palsy and those who’ve suffered traumatic brain injuries or strokes — as well.

And he is thankful for his brothers, his best friends whom he talks to almost daily. Thankful for his parents, who are divorced but have never wavered in their support. He is thankful for teammates, current and former. Thankful for many people he’s surely forgetting, and countless people he’ll never know. And most of all, he says, “thankful to still be here.”