May 7, 2013
By Matt Winkeljohn
To you, Georgia Tech athletics may be about the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, some tailgating, perhaps an occasional road trip for kicks. You’re a fan.
Ask Asia Stawicka, though, and you’ll learn that for so many Yellow Jacket student-athletes, coaches and support staff, it can be a separate and uniquely intense life within a bigger life – all imbued by a family away from home.
Stawicka knows this even better now that she’s back to her senses, out of a medically-induced coma, out of that gawdawful, hissing, spinning machine she was entombed in for days, free from a ventilator and breathing on her own again.
The former Tech volleyball player even walked 800 feet Monday, albeit with a walker.
She’s still in intensive care at Northside Hospital with a long way to go before she makes it back to her native Poland. Yet given that volleyball coach Tonya Johnson said the other day, “She’s lucky to be alive,” Stawicka has covered enough ground to make any trip back to Warsaw seem a hop and a skip.
Who knew strep throat could go so wrong?
When playing for the Jackets from 2008-11, Asia Stawicka (Asha Stuh-veetch-kuh) was to hear Johnson tell it, “stubborn . . . great academically, and a very good volleyball player . . . Quiet, just goes about her work . . . Not emotional at all.”
On April Fool’s Day last month, she contacted volleyball athletic trainer Carla Gilson. Given Stawicka’s track record, Gilson had an inkling that the former Jacket was not joking; she’s known to be independent.
“She called me on a Monday night, and said, ‘Hey, Carla, can you take me to the clinic tomorrow?’ I said, ‘Sure, what’s going on?’ She said, ‘I’ve just been sick, and not feeling well,’ ” the athletic trainer recalled. “We went to a clinic, she took the test, she had strep.”
Stawicka, who was recruited by Johnson’s predecessor, had planned to return to Warsaw upon graduating, but got a job in Atlanta with Nfinity. “I’m actually shocked that she’s still here,” the coach says. “She always talked about going back to Poland.”
With her biological family so far away, her second family became first – even though Stawicka is no longer under the Tech umbrella.
She started on antibiotics, other medications and a breathing aid, but conditions didn’t improve as they should have. She wasn’t too forthcoming about that, however, and if not for a roommate, a co-worker, and the intuition and nosy nature of Gilson and others in the Tech family, well, perish the thought.
Atlanta was buzzing that week, what with the Final Four coming to town, and the Tech staff firmly entrenched in related duties.
Stawicka stayed home from work. By phone and/or text, Gilson said, “We would go back and forth. She’d say, ‘I’m OK. I’m getting better.’ Her roommate would text; she said, ‘Carla, she’s not eating.’ “
By the end of that week, just as Final Four activities were ramping up, Stawicka’s mother – Jolanta Stawicka – called Gilson from Poland. There were serious communication barriers, so Gilson merged the call with Asia.
Turns out the daughter wasn’t giving much detail to Mom, either, but mother knows best. Jolanta had a sense. She contacted one of Asia’s former teammates, Monique Mead, who in turned called Gilson and said, “What’s going on with Asia?”
Stawicka wasn’t getting better, but she opted to go to work Monday – the day of the national championship game in the Georgia Dome. There was a heightened sense of urgency surrounding her, if not in her.
“I think the medicine probably masked it, but it was already in her lungs,” said volleyball strength and conditioning coach Scott McDonald. “She probably felt better, and that’s probably why she went to work.”
That did not go well, but Stawicka didn’t really let on.
“We were at the Dome. She’d left me a message saying she was fine. I remember thinking Monday after the game, ‘I need to call Asia tomorrow, and find out what’s going on,'” Gilson said. “I was in the office [Tuesday], taking someone out to do a rehab, and I get a phone call from her co-worker.
“She says, ‘This is Judy; Asia is not doing well. She’s really weak.'”
So Gilson called Tech team physician Linnette Sells, and asked if Stawicka could visit her private practice. There was a constant cough that wasn’t necessarily consistent with strep, and in Gilson’s mind there was insufficient evidence the antibiotics were working. “We don’t know what we’re dealing with,” Gilson told Sells.
“I asked Judy if she could drive Asia to the clinic [in Norcross] They took a chest X-ray, and said, ‘She’s got pneumonia and some other stuff going on. She needs to go the ER.'”
It didn’t take long at Northside, in the emergency room, for doctors to admit Stawicka and send her to intensive care. It was April 10. “[Dr. Sells] texted me and said, ‘Carla, I believe this is Lemierre’s Syndrome. It’s textbook,'” Gilson recalled.
Lemierre’s is rare and dangerous, and usually derived from infection of the jugular vein.
It was derived from the strep, which resulted in an abscess in the back of her throat that eventually drained bacteria into Stawicka’s system. Eventually, her body went into sepsis, or widespread inflammation caused by infection.
The ventilator came quickly. Stawicka had a tracheotomy, and was intubated.
Day two in the hospital was worse.
When Johnson visited, her former player was face-down in a RotoProne Bed with all kinds of tubes, including feeding, attached. Doctors had put her in a coma, and switched her ventilation to an oscillator that pushes air more forcefully.
“She rotates side to side, flat on her stomach with gook coming out of her nose and mouth,” Johnson said. “On the first day, it was brown with specks of blood in it, and by the end it looked like phlegm.”
McDonald said, “You could see her feet, but not much of her face. It looked like totally different room, double the machines, the sound was twice as loud.”
The equipment was new to Gilson, who’s been doing what she does some two decades.
“It’s a sight I don’t ever want to see, and a sound I don’t ever want to hear again because it’s a high-impact pulsing, pushing, trying to pump her lungs and get rid of the infection,” she said. “The bed . . . is almost like a rotisserie. The idea is that is going to take her side to side . . . it drains from her. She was swollen.”
Her mom arrived Friday from Poland, and hospital officials, “rotated her over so her mother could see her.”
That was April 12, a Friday, and Stawicka was not alert again until last week.
Her mother, Jolanta, has difficulty communicating because she knows very little English. The hospital translator, Monika Dolinska, has parents who live in Poland no more than 30 minutes from the Stawickas, but the translator is not always available.
Here, more help has come from the Tech family.
Two former Jacket volleyball managers who speak Polish, Kris Jurgowski and Karol Chudy, and a Polish-speaking Tech graduate student (Victor Lesniewski) who is an acquaintance of a former Tech volleyball player’s husband, have helped. So, too, has Wojciech Kaczowski, an academic tutor in the Athletic Association.
Chudy lives in Atlanta. Jurgowski, who managed at Tech during part of Stawicka’s career, caught a flight from New York City, where he lives and works with Zynga.
“Her mom has adopted some Polish-American sons,” Gilson said with a smile. [Jurgowski] . . . spent five days with her mom. She lights up when they’re around.”
Stawicka’s lights are not yet bright, but they’re burning again.
She’s in step-down intensive care, now, and doctors suggest she may be ready for release from the hospital in a few weeks.
The other day, when fiddling with Gilson’s phone, Asia pretended like she was going to drop it. That brought smiles.
A steady stream of doctors and nurses stop by and, according to Gilson, McDonald and Johnson, they smile as well. They marvel over the ongoing recovery of a patient who’s come from a very dark place, stricken by something some had not seen in their careers.
Stawicka’s feeding and trachea tubes came out Monday, and she slept on her back that night for the first time in a long time.
She’s had some soup, popsicles, a brownie or two. Jolanta’s communication issues seem trivial now. “It is as if she is a new woman now that Asia is improving,” Gilson said.
There has been nothing standard in what’s happened to Stawicka, whom doctors have suggested found a, “bad-luck situation.” The bacteria that caused this, after all, are in all of our bodies, yet in some, when they get in the bloodstream . . .
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” Johnson said. “She’s lucky to be alive. If she had waited another two or three days . . .”
There is hard work ahead of Stawicka, whose lung power will be diminished for a time. She also will have to fight through the realities of limited insurance coverage.
But she’s back in the game with the help of her Tech family because, whether you knew it or not, this is what they do – as when Stawicka dislocated an elbow her freshman season, battled a herniated disc as a sophomore and tore up a knee as a senior.
Fans, “see the on-the-court stuff,” Johnson said. “They don’t see the behind-the-scenes stuff.”
Yet even when a student-athlete moves on, the Jackets stand up for each other.
Nobody at Tech is being paid to caddy Stawicka. Good thing they work for more than a paycheck.
“People look at athletics and they see wins and losses,” Gilson said. “Asia’s situation is unique because she was an international student, but I don’t think our love and respect and desire to help would have been any different for another kid. They just would have had a better base of support because the communication barrier is huge [for Stawicka’s mother].”
To make donations to the Joanna (Asia) Stawicka fund, please visit https://www.hhmin.org/make_donation_projects.php. For the project category, select, “Medical Projects,” and scroll to, “Stawicka, Joanna.”
Seems just about impossible not to be proud of everyone involved here.
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