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Epilepsy Can't Keep Fleming on Tartan Bench

April 03, 2001|BEN BOLCH

There's no reason to be afraid now, no need to feel less than whole. Colter Fleming has come to realize this nearly a year after his long and painful ordeal began aboard an American Airlines jet.

The St. Margaret's junior first baseman has juvenile epilepsy, a rare disorder that kept him off the field much of last season after a chilling episode.

But he has returned to the field, where he is having his best season. He already has 16 runs batted in during the team's first nine games. And, more important, he has the malady under control thanks to medication, an outpouring of support and a willingness to take it easy when the pressures of high school life start to spiral out of control.

It was the strain of a demanding week that set all this adversity in motion. Colter and his mother, Joy, had stayed up until 2 a.m. one night last April wrapping "Vote For Colter For President" signs around Tootsie-Roll Pops. Fleming, engaged in a battle for junior class president, was also busy completing papers that were due before spring break.

The next day, he became dehydrated while playing for St. Margaret's during a game in which the team ran out of water. Afterward, he rushed to the airport to board a plane bound for Dallas, only to be saddled with a five-hour delay.

After finally making it to Dallas, Fleming was united with his father, Jim, and brother, Brody, for the second leg of his flight to Hartford, Conn., where he was headed to visit relatives.

About 30 minutes outside of Dallas, Fleming fell asleep. But it wasn't a restful slumber. Almost from the moment Fleming became unconscious, his body stiffened, his eyes rolled to the back of his head and he started making faint growling noises.

His alarmed father had no idea what to do. But a woman sitting behind the father recognized that the boy was having a seizure and notified the flight attendants. The captain returned the jet to Dallas, where Fleming was taken to a local hospital and diagnosed with the disorder.

Fleming actually awoke on the plane and spoke briefly with his father, but he was so disoriented that he couldn't spell his own name. He didn't even realize there was a problem.

"People have no idea what the feeling is like," Fleming said. "It's like you're in a different world. It's like you think it's a dream but it's not. It's not uncomfortable. It doesn't hurt."

Fleming later learned that the episode was brought on by stress, dehydration and sleep deprivation. "We're very cognizant now that we have to watch those three things and his medicine," Joy Fleming said.

Because the extent of his illness was unknown, Colter quit baseball, though he did return for one forgettable playoff game. His medication made him sluggish, and he fought depression. He also worried about what others would think.

"After I found out I had epilepsy, I was really down and I was thinking it was some big deal," Fleming said. "Like I couldn't do things because I had this. The toughest part was that other people didn't really know that much about it and they were scared. They were really protective. I didn't like that at first."

Fleming was voted class president but didn't serve because he moved in with his father in Austin, Texas, to start school there last fall. The time he spent bonding with his father was an important part of his recovery.

"None of this year would have been possible if my dad hadn't changed my way of thinking," Fleming said. "I can do anything if I put my mind to it--it's as simple as that. And that's just what he preached to me."

When this semester approached, though, Fleming found himself eager to return to St. Margaret's and rejoin his friends on the Tartan roster. So he paid his own tuition with the money he had earned as a child actor.

Fleming had played small roles in several movies, including the straight-to-video "Prehysteria! 3," released in 1995, about tiny dinosaurs who inhabit a miniature golf course.

His finest role is on the St. Margaret's baseball team, where he is hitting .520 with two home runs.

"Having him back is a blessing for the team," Tartan Coach Ryan Garrity said. "He's our No. 4 hitter, our first baseman and an inspirational leader. He has a fighting spirit and never lets anything get him down."

Fleming had reason to celebrate last week after a neurologist said he was 90% sure Fleming would outgrow the non-genetic illness, which only afflicts him while he sleeps, by age 20.

"Now he's accepted that it's OK, it's a medical condition that he can control with drugs," said Joy Fleming, who now educates her son's friends and their families about the disorder.

Said Colter: "If I don't overexert myself, I should be fine. But I had to learn how to do that. It took two more episodes before I learned that I have to watch it."


San Clemente has won only three of its last seven games after opening the season with five consecutive victories. The Tritons (8-4, 2-3 in the South Coast League) have been beset by injuries and a defection.

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