After a viral attack, former Georgia Tech football player Mike Darby was expected to die in June but is now healthy. He visited the Gainesville rehabilitation facility last Thursday to visit residents and thank therapists. In the photo, left to right: Physical therapist Carleigh Turner, wife Deana, Darby, occupational therapist Becky Lesco, sons Brendon and Nicholas and daughters Natalie and Stefanie.
Photo: Ken Sugiura/AJC
Photo: Ken Sugiura/AJC

Former Tech football player’s fight for life ‘a walking miracle’

The happiest of realizations strikes Deana Darby every so often. When she and her husband Mike were hanging ornaments on the Christmas tree in their home in Hoschton at the north end of Gwinnett County. When they’re in the kitchen joking around.

“I look at him, like, Wow, I can’t believe you’re here,” said Deana, Mike’s wife of 34 years.

The disbelief has reason. The Darbys and their six children can look back with wonder on Mike’s recovery from an attack of a virus that nearly claimed his life in June and then his rehabilitation from being so debilitated by that assault on his body that life in a paralyzed state seemed possible. They can celebrate his health, but also the wide and deep support that they received from family and friends, some not heard from in years.

Mike Darby, who was a walk-on at Georgia Tech for coach Bill Curry in the early 1980s, marvels at how long-ago teammates rallied to his aid, still connected by the shared misery of grueling August practices and the school’s punishing curriculum.

“I’ve only felt grateful that God let me hang around,” Darby, 56, said. “I feel like there’s so much more to do.”

Mike Darby and Deana Stewart met as Georgia Tech students in 1981 through the Baptist Student Union. They married in 1983, when Deana was still in school. They have raised six children, two of whom have followed them to Tech and have served on the football team as student managers. Deana home schooled all of them through eighth grade. Mike works as a controller for a software company in Cumming.

A former teammate and roommate of Darby’s, Duane Wood, describes his close friend and his wife as a loving couple, active in their community and salt of the earth.

“If you ask them a question, you’ll get an honest answer, and they’ll do what they say they’ll do,” he said.

They attend 12Stone Church in Lawrenceville faithfully, love going to Disney World and live a life that has been centered on the children’s sports and drama activities.

“We’re nobody special,” Deana said.

On June 16 of this year – a Friday, two days before Father’s Day – Mike called Deana to tell her that he was driving himself to the emergency room at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Braselton. His heart was racing and he was having trouble breathing. It raised fears from a medical episode a few years ago when he was hospitalized with pneumonia and an irregular heartbeat.

“So we’re thinking, ‘Oh, no, here we go again with something like that,” Deana said.

Still, the hope was that he could return home by Sunday for Father’s Day, which was also the Darbys’ wedding anniversary. Saturday, still having breathing problems, he was moved to the ICU and put on a ventilator. Deana asked a doctor if he was going to die. She was told that, no, he would be O.K.

Quickly, however, Darby’s health deteriorated. His blood pressure started dropping, and an echocardiogram revealed that his heart was barely functioning. Jeremy Walker, the doctor who had assured Deana not once but twice that Mike would be O.K., now had to deliver a painfully different message.

“I said, ‘I’ve got some bad news. There’s been a change here and we can see now that his heart is really beating poorly, and if we don’t do something quickly, we’re going to lose him,’” Walker said.

Walker decided to transfer Darby to the hospital’s main campus in Gainesville, which was better equipped to handle his case, but Walker wasn’t confident Darby would even get the chance.

“We were not far away from losing him, not far away at all,” he said.

But Darby made it to Gainesville, where he had a heart pump implanted to pump blood because his heart was too weak to do it on its own. What had happened, Walker said, was that a virus had severely weakened his heart muscle, a condition called myocarditis.

Sedated to the point of unconsciousness, Darby stabilized on Sunday after the implant, but Deana called her children home, not a simple process. The second youngest, Brendon, was at Tech’s campus in France. Another son, Chandler, lives in California and a daughter, Stefanie, lives in Colorado.

The doctors’ hope was to keep Darby alive long enough for his body to fight off the virus. However, due to his poor heart function, Darby’s liver and kidneys were failing. His lungs were filling with fluid. His gastrointestinal tract wasn’t functioning.

The day before he took himself to the hospital, Darby threw the football with his youngest child Nicholas, a student at Mill Creek High. Now he was dying.

“I don’t even know how to explain it,” Nicholas said. “It’s like a piece of your heart stolen.”

Mehrdad Toosi, a cardiologist, was one of perhaps 20 doctors who cared for Darby along with maybe three times as many nurses. He likened the case to a roller-coaster ride.

“There were moments we really thought that we were going to lose him,” he said.

For several days, the possibility of death loomed. Four different times, the Darbys were brought in to say goodbye to Mike, once when all six children were present, two at a time. Deana said she had to make a very real decision about her Christian faith, whether she could truly surrender her husband’s fate to God.

“Like in the Bible where it talks about Jesus praying (before his crucifixion), ‘Please take this cup away from me and if not, let your will be done,’” she said. “You have to get to that point, and that’s an easy thing to say, but it’s not an easy place to be.”

Walker, the doctor who first cared for him upon his admission, continued to check in on Darby online and recalls one instance when he was convinced he would not survive.

“I was just really sad, because I felt like he might pull out of it, and I saw his numbers, and they were barely compatible with life,” Walker said, “and I was thinking, we were so close.”

Somehow, he made it. Deana vividly recalled a moment – one of the times she and Nicholas had come in to say goodbye – when they entered a hospital room in chaos, as Mike’s blood pressure had plummeted and doctors and nurses scrambled to save him. Deana said she bowed her head and in prayer acknowledged God to be sovereign, but that, if he could keep Mike alive, they would spend the rest of their lives giving him the glory.

“That’s all I said, and I just sat there, and it probably wasn’t very long,” she said. “But the next thing I heard was a doctor say, ‘Well, would you look at that.’”

Darby had stabilized. The worst had finally passed. His health improved daily. He was taken off dialysis. His failing liver, which had turned his body yellow, began to function again. His blood pressure improved. His heart rhythm stayed under control.

“It was a real life-and-death battle,” Toosi said. “He made it. I’m very happy to see that recovery.”

The Darbys praise the life-saving work of doctors and nurses at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, which was independently rated Georgia’s top hospital for heart care from 2006 through 2017. They also believe they were in the presence of a miracle, a conclusion that Walker shared.

“It’s something that you really hoped would happen, but didn’t think was possible, and then it comes into fruition,” Walker said. “It’s hard to put into words.”

But his ordeal was only beginning. After his body had expended so much energy defending itself from the virus and being under sedation for about a month, Darby’s body had atrophied.

“I could feel anything, but I could move nothing,” Darby said. “I couldn’t even move my fingers.”

After a six-week hospital stay, he was moved to a nursing home in Gainesville for rehabilitation. At first, Deana Darby said, therapists just hoped for any sort of movement. The possibility of walking again seemed remote.

Mike Darby was barely able to move a finger when he was admitted to the New Horizons Limestone nursing and rehab facility in August. He took a photo with wife Deana, daughter Natalie and son Nicholas shortly after his admission.
Photo: Courtesy Duane Wood

But Darby threw himself into his rehabilitation with the will that he had shown as a walk-on at Tech decades ago, where his primary role was getting beat up daily by the Yellow Jackets starters in practice. Wood, his former teammate, recalled conversations in college when he asked how Darby, a walk-on, could persist even when scholarship teammates wanted to quit.

“And he’d just say, ‘Hey, I’m committed. This is what I’m going to do and I’m sticking with it,’” Wood said.

Said Becky Lesko, Darby’s occupational therapist, “Being stubborn isn’t always a bad thing.”

He was pushed daily by therapists and further by Nicholas, a Mill Creek quarterback who drove his dad like a strength coach.

“I figured if I could survive four-a-days, I could push hard with this,” Darby said.

Admitted at the beginning of August, when leaving in a wheelchair would have been a success, he walked out of New Horizons Limestone on crutches in the middle of September. He and Deana danced at their son Chandler’s wedding in October to a contemporary Christian song – “Tell Your Heart to Beat Again.”

He continues physical therapy on his own, but he is back to work, walking and throwing the football with Nicholas. His heart, liver and kidney functions are improving.

This past Thursday, Darby and his family returned to the facility. They had come to offer Christmas cheer to the residents of the facility and shared hugs and laughs with staff, still incredulous at his recovery.

“He should not be doing what he’s doing,” said Lesko, his occupational therapist.

Said Carleigh Turner, Darby’s physical therapist, “He’s truly a walking miracle.”

Six months after nearly losing their husband and father, the Darbys remain almost dazed, not only by the recovery but by the support they received.

Friends and family kept company in the hospital and brought home-cooked meals. They responded to Deana’s texted requests for prayer, lifting up pleas from as far away as Vietnam, where the family of Chandler’s wife Yvonne lives. Friends paid for a hotel room near the hospital so they could stay close by.

Nicholas’ friends rolled up pocket change and sent it to him so he could hit up the hospital vending machine. When Deana told friends at their church to tow their old car out of their driveway, they went ahead and towed it, but also had it fixed. A friend and his son cut the grass all summer.

“We didn’t even ask,” Deana said. “They just said, ‘We’re going to cut your grass.’”

Curry visited his former player at the hospital, continued to stay in touch and then tapped former players and contacts for financial assistance. Several of Darby’s Tech teammates, some who hadn’t seen him since their playing days, contributed, prayed and visited. More than $30,000 was raised to help defray the costs of rehabilitation.

“That’s incredible, isn’t it?” Deana said. “That’s wild.”

Going forward, the Darbys want to minister to others who endure similar medical crises through their church. Overwhelmed by the support from former Tech teammates, they plan to have the 501-c-3 that aided them – called Helping Hands – ready to assist others in the Tech family. They have returned multiple times to the nursing home and rehab facility to lift the spirits of residents.

They don’t know why Mike Darby’s life was spared when others’ aren’t. They recognize the inevitability of disease and death.

“Something bad could happen to any of us,” Deana Darby said, curled up in a chair in a sunlit room of their Hoschton home. “But I think that the main point is that, no matter what the circumstances, when you get a lot of people loving each other, you’re going to get through, and you’re going to be O.K. There’s always hope for everybody.”

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