PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Dillon Gee never actually grew frightened -- he didn't have time for that -- until he arrived at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York and saw a magnetic resonance image of his right arm. Doctors had injected his bloodstream with dye, and Gee watched the color flow through his veins, up into his right shoulder -- and stop.
The image of Gee's right arm was black. The veins there received no dye. He had no blood pressure. Gee could not feel anything in his arm.
This was last July, about 36 hours after Gee completed one of the finest starts of his life at Citi Field. After the game, he iced down his arm as usual. He took a hot shower, also as usual, and then his hand began feeling numb. Later that night, Gee struggled to button his shirt as he prepared to go to dinner with his wife.
When he awoke the next morning with more exaggerated numbness, Gee sought help from the training staff at Citi Field; no one yet knew how dire his condition had become. It was not until he sat in the hospital chair and looked at a picture of his arm that Gee finally began to realize.
"It was a total of five days," Gee said. "I went from fine to surgery."
Never a top prospect, Gee fought through significant shoulder trouble just to reach the big leagues. He turned heads with his performance down the stretch in 2010, then kept them turned by winning his first seven decisions in 2011. Though Gee struggled throughout the second half that season, he did enough to guarantee himself a rotation spot heading into 2012.
All the while, the Mets never considered Gee much more than a back-of-the-rotation option, a glorified placeholder until the organization's more-hyped pitchers reached the Majors. Then something uncommon happened -- Gee demonstrated sustained improvement over a significant sample size, spiking his strikeout rate while walking fewer and fewer batters. He began to rely more on his improving breaking pitches, while throwing his fastball harder than ever before.
The results were obvious. From May 21 until July 7, Gee morphed into one of the best starting pitchers in baseball, posting a 3.00 ERA with 54 strikeouts and 16 walks in 60 innings. Because the Mets did not give him much run support, and because teammate R.A. Dickey was doing even more remarkable things on the mound, Gee's accomplishments went largely overshadowed. But he was terrific.
Then Gee's right arm went numb, feeling "like it was going to fall off," and for a few terrifying days, everything changed.
"It was nothing I had ever experienced before, but I just figured it would go away," Gee said. "When they showed me the clot and told me I had a serious problem, that's when it kind of set in that I'm probably not going to be pitching very soon after this."
Gee remained hospitalized that night in New York, so that doctors could insert a catheter to dissolve the blood clot in his shoulder. He stayed in the hospital for two nights, then flew to St. Louis for emergency surgery to repair the artery damage. Surgeons removed a four-inch section of the saphenous vein near Gee's groin, grafting it into the axillary artery in his shoulder.
For days afterward, Gee viewed the massive swelling still in his arm as evidence that the operation was ineffective. Only slowly, once he began to regain sensation in his hand, did he realize he would heal.
One of his teammates and friends, Bobby Parnell, empathized with Gee's situation after previously missing time with a blood clot in his pitching hand.
"As a human being in general it's scary, because you don't really know what's going on inside your body until it's too late," Parnell said. "To find something out that is out of your control, it raises flags. It's definitely alarm-raising."
Doctors told Gee he would not be able to throw a baseball again for six to eight weeks, but that he could do no damage if he attempted to before then. Gee did. He resumed throwing in September, then spent the winter in Texas working his arm back into Major League shape. By the time Gee arrived in Port St. Lucie last month, he felt strong. The Mets committed to him once again without hesitation, reissuing him his old rotation spot.
With that backing, an admittedly overenergized Gee took the mound against the Marlins last Sunday, firing his fastballs high in the strike zone. Pitching coach Dan Warthen chuckled afterward that "I would expect him to be a little amped up," considering Gee had not faced Major League hitters in a game since July.
It made sense, even if Gee's day-to-day attitude has grown more introspective. He realizes now, perhaps more than ever, how fickle a Major League career can be. For a quarter-century, Gee worked to become a big league pitcher, before nearly losing everything over a five-day span in July.
"Now that I'm back and feeling pretty good, it definitely puts things in perspective," Gee said. "It definitely makes you grateful that you have this job, that you have this kind of life, that you get to live your dream of being a big league pitcher. You can't take it for granted. It can be gone at any time."
More remarkable is that sometimes, it can also return just as quickly.