Finishing what he started: Sam Powell nears graduation from Chico State after overcoming rare brain infection
When Sam Powell sets out to accomplish something, he gets it done. No matter the obstacles.
As a kid growing up in Nevada County, Powell had a dream of one day playing first base for the Miners baseball team. As a fifth grader he let Nevada Union coach Ted White know of his intentions with a letter. Some years later, Powell was the starter at first base for the 2015 Miners baseball team.
After high school, Powell’s goal was to get his college degree. He bounced around a couple of junior colleges before finding a fit at Butte College and was on track to transfer to Chico State in 2019.
That’s when everything changed.
It was January 4, 2019, and Powell was wrapping up his studies at Butte College. He had just parked in the campus lot for a winter session class when everything went dark.
“I basically pulled into the parking lot and instantly went into a seizure,” Powell said. “I have no recollection of what happened, and basically had it all filled in for me later.”
Powell was in his car convulsing for several hours before a passerby noticed and called 911.
He was rushed to Enloe Medical Center in Chico, and later flown to UC Davis Medical Center where a team of doctors went to work.
It was discovered that Powell, who was 22 at the time, had a walnut-sized abscess on his brain caused by a bacteria called Streptococcus Intermedius — a very rare condition.
For three days, Powell remained in an induced coma as doctors tried different antibiotics to fight the infection that had caused the abscess.
With Powell unconscious for so long his family worried about long-term damage.
“Knowing that he was in his car seizing for hours, you start to think who is he going to be? Is it going to be the same Sam? Is he going to have brain damage? You just don’t know at that point,” Sam’s father Brian Powell recalled.
‘IT WAS STILL SAM’
On Jan. 7, the Powell family got their answer.
With his mother, father, brother and girlfriend in the room, doctors brought Sam out of his coma.
“His eyes were opening up and looking around like, ‘What in the hell is going on,’” Brian said. “He couldn’t talk, he couldn’t do anything. So we didn’t really know what condition he was in. He’s looking around and then sees his brother, focuses in on him for a couple seconds, put his hand up and flipped him off.
“All four of us just started busting up laughing. From that point on we knew it was still Sam.”
Sam said he doesn’t remember that moment, but doesn’t doubt it either.
Over the next few days, doctors continued trying different antibiotics in hopes of quelling the infection that caused the abscess, but it only grew in size.
“I was in and out of consciousness at this point,” Sam said. “I was kind of in a blur for days after I woke up. By the third or fourth day I started to realize where I was. It was like I was on a stage and I was peeking out from behind the curtain here and there, but then the curtain would close and I wouldn’t remember anything.”
Two days after coming out of the coma, Sam went in for surgery to drain the contents of the abscess. The procedure took about five hours and was a success.
“I woke up and was pretty shaken. It was a wild thing to experience. I’ve tried to describe the pain, but it’s impossible to describe. It’s not something many people have experienced,“ Sam said. “It was a crazy process, but I’m here to tell the story.”
It took him weeks to regain all his motor functions, and was forced to take a semester off of school.
The process was a trying one for Sam, but he had his family and girlfriend to help him along the way.
During that time he also looked back to his baseball days and the life lessons he learned from White, the Nevada Union coach, while playing for the Miners.
“Before workouts we would talk about the mental game,” Sam said. “We would work on setting goals, setting achievable goals. It was like a workshop on life. I always think back to the goal setting he implanted in high school. That was a huge drive for me. To have that and be able to set attainable goals for myself is a crucial part of why I’m here today.”
White said he was nearly brought to tears when he heard of his impact on Sam.
“He’s got such a great personality, loved the game and worked really hard,” White said. “Talk about someone who just had fun being out there and just enjoyed it. And for him to go through something like that, I just can’t believe it. I’m just so happy for him that it turned out the way it did because it definitely could have gone another direction.”
Five months after the surgery Sam returned to college.
“I knew I was extremely lucky and extremely blessed to have a coherent thought in my head, so I knew I had to buckle down and finish school,” he said. “I set out a goal pretty early in my life and that was to finish college. I was on the door step of doing it. Obviously there were a lot of hurdles along the way, but I wanted to finish the race, get it done and finish the goal I set for myself.”
He’s now a senior at Chico State, majoring in business marketing, and is set to graduate at the end of the semester.
“I think he found that he’s a lot stronger than he knew,” Brian said. “He can really handle anything life throws at him. It was a life-altering situation, and you don’t know how you’ll react until it happens, and the way he’s handled it has been amazing. We’re really proud of him.”
Sam’s mother Delynn Powell added “He’s just so determined. He wants to do well, and I think this has given him an edge. He doesn’t shy away from things that he may have in the past.”
Sam expressed gratitude for his family and girlfriend, Mikaela Steagall, for standing by him the entire time. He also praised the doctors and nurses who helped save his life.
He said the whole ordeal made him want to reach out to all the people he cares about, and has given him a new perspective on life.
“I just hope people realize that things can get worse, so hold on to every moment,” he said. “If you want to accomplish something, go out and work at it. You never know when the lights are going to get turned off.”
To contact Sports Editor Walter Ford, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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