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Husband on quest to fight 'silent killer'

Bob DeVries stood on the field at Spring Mobile Ballpark Saturday night and took a picture of people waving from the stands.

And while he didn't know their names until Saturday night, he's been spending his own money to raise awareness about a genetic disorder that for them, and millions of others, is a matter of life and death.

DeVries doesn't have sudden arrhythmia death syndrome (SADS), but his wife did. And before they ever knew she had a heart condition, it killed her. Shawn DeVries was 35 — active, vibrant and a rabid Yankees fan. The disease that killed her was treatable with medication.

Unfortunately, the symptoms are mild and often ascribed to other ailments, problems or situations.

"She'd fainted in Pittsburgh the year before, and we took her to an emergency room," said DeVries, who stopped in Salt Lake City because it is the home of the SADS Foundation. "They said she was dehydrated and gave her an IV."

After an autopsy revealed she had arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia (ARVD), DeVries said he swam in a sea of what-ifs.

"I was blown away," he said. "She was very healthy."

And then there was the guilt he felt because he didn't see what even trained medical professionals missed.

"I felt like I was her husband and I was supposed to take care of my wife," he said. "That was my own guilt."

Eventually he learned from doctors that SADS is called "the silent killer" for a reason. Many doctors miss it. The symptoms are fainting or seizure during exercise, excitement or startling, and consistent unusual chest pain and/or shortness of breath during exercise.

Eventually he came to a conclusion.

"You can't 'what if' the past," he said. "You can't beat yourself up because it's over. But you can 'what if' the future. That's why we're here donating an AED to the ballpark and raising awareness. The awareness aspect is huge."

DeVries didn't set out to be an activist.

He was just a grieving husband who was having trouble finding a way to live after losing his love. The lifelong Cubs fan had purchased tickets to the National League playoffs after Chicago won the division.

"I knew they'd play either the Diamondbacks or the Dodgers, and we were living in Arizona at the time," he said. It was less than a month after Shawn's death that the Cubs ended up playing the Dodgers in Los Angeles.

"I flew up and watched," he said. "It gave me the confidence to start living again. It showed me I shouldn't just sit around my apartment and feel sorry for myself."

Like any good Cubs fan, he had hope even when things looked their darkest.

"I was wearing Cubs stuff in L.A.," he said smiling. "I was getting heckled."

The experience woke him up, breathed life back into his soul and gave him an idea.

Shawn loved baseball as much as he did. Why not go to every baseball park in American — 30 Major League parks — in a single season and talk to people about SADS.

If he saved one person the pain he's suffered, it would be worth the expense.

SADS officials in Utah found out about his 2009 effort, in which he wore a Cubs jersey (always stops traffic) that said, "All 30 Parks" and No. 09. As he walked around the various ball parks, fans would always stop him and ask him "What does that mean?"

And he would teach them. About his wife, about SADS and about sacrifice. With some urging from SADS, he undertook the effort again in 2010 with a new Cubs jersey (which says Everypark, No. 10 on the back) and an expanded purpose.

He asked for donations to a memorial fund in his wife's name and he blogged about his experiences in an effort to get the word out to more people.

"I was in Oakland and the whole section got involved in a conversation about SADS," he said. "They started asking questions. It was really cool."

For local SADS officials, DeVries effort is critical because it helps them get the message to an audience they might otherwise miss.

"This affects young people and athletes," said SADS vice president Laura Wall.

Adds Alice Lara, president and CEO of SADS, "It's really special (DeVries effort) because it's something so different ... It helps us reach a different crowd."

DeVries will end his effort this season in Florida at Sun Life Stadium watching his Cubs take on the Marlins. He said it will be one of the emotional games as his family lives there and will attend the game with him.

"Last year it was just me learning to live again," he said. "This year it was to raise money for the memorial fund and to raise awareness."

DeVries said some of the visits have summoned painful memories. Others have been inspiring. Most have just been enjoyable.

"It showed me, and you hate to say it, but life goes on," he said. "If I can meet some folks, make a difference, it's worth it. It'll never tell me why it happened, but at least something positive came out of it."

One other life lesson DeVries has earned in his two-year quest — don't sweat the small stuff. In June, his flight was delayed in Chicago so he went to a restaurant at the airport to watch his Cubs take on the White Sox. While others complained, he savored the game.

"Ted Lilly and Gavin Floyd took a no hitter into the seventh inning," he said. "We got to watch it. If we'd have been flying, we wouldn't have been able to watch. ...This has enabled me to just live ... and not waste a moment."

e-mail: adonaldson@desnews.com