K.J. Higgins chokes back tears in the middle of a story.
“I’m sorry,” he says, quickly composing himself. “It’s just that this whole thing is still kind of fresh.”
The Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial is a popular place for remembering friends taken too soon. And even though Garrett Baumann never served in the military, Higgins and two of his other childhood friends — Mitch Blevins and Alex Monaco — couldn’t think of a better place for their own private memorial service.
“I’ll always refer to Garrett as a warrior,” Monaco said. “It got to a point where he kept surpassing all the decks stacked against him and kept fighting. We were just blown away, year after year, by his zest for life.”
Higgins is a property manager now, Blevins a financial analyst and Monaco a sports broadcaster. But, first and foremost, they consider themselves members of what they call “Team Garrett.” They came up with the name — a symbol of the lengths they happily went to for their friend — while growing up with Baumann in Tierrasanta.
“They mentioned a shortened life expectancy with his condition,” Higgins said. “I don’t remember exactly what the number was, but he said, ‘(Expletive) it’ and kept persisting and kept having fun. And I think we all take the time to cherish every second we have because of that.”
Baumann died on Aug. 7 of complications from Neurofibromatosis Type 2 (NF2). The genetic disorder — which afflicts one in every 40,000 people — is characterized by noncancerous tumors that grow throughout the nervous system. When Baumann died, he had more than 100, most of which were inoperable. They destroyed his hearing, vision, balance, voice and swallowing abilities.
He was 29.
Craig and Suzanne Baumann moved their family to La Jolla in 1997, yet they continued sending 8-year-old Garrett to public school in Tierrasanta because the bond with his old friends was so strong.
“A lot of the reason why I think a lot of us are so close is through Garrett,” Blevins said. “He was like a glue for our friendship. It’s grown stronger and it’s so nice to have a friendship with someone you’ve been friends with since you were 6.”
Despite a vision problem at birth, Baumann enjoyed a normal childhood — playing basketball at the Tierrasanta Recreation Center, listening to classic rock (Styx in particular) and playing video games.
“He was our buddy, just one of the boys,” Blevins said.
In fifth grade, the school nurse noticed Baumann’s hearing loss, which resulted in a diagnosis of NF2. Deafness from the tumors was inevitable. So Higgins, Blevins, Monaco and others formed a sign-language club at Tierrasanta’s Kumeyaay Elementary. Three times a week, they came to school an hour early to teach each other the signals.
“Knowing that his buddies could still communicate with him was very important to the family and to all of us,” Higgins said. “It wasn’t really a big deal.”
Sixth grade is when the surgeries started. But, Monaco said, “he was always positive, he didn’t let it crush his spirit.” When they told Baumann he could no longer play flag football in gym, Monaco recalled, “we all chose something else to play together.”
After graduating from Serra High School with honors, Baumann earned his Eagle Scout badge with Troop 506 in La Jolla, then began studying computer science at Point Loma Nazarene University.
Within a couple of years, though, NF2 had taken away his ability to hear, speak, eat and see. The latter part of his 20s saw more destruction and pain.
“He was loud and loved comraderie around sports,” Monaco said. “It was definitely tough at the end, when he lost his voice box.”
Yet, Blevins, pointed out: “I don’t think he ever complained about the situation he was in. He always saw the positive in things. I think that’s changed all of our perspectives forever.”
Every August, Higgins, Blevins and Monaco dress as characters from Mario Kart — Baumann’s favorite video game — when Team Garrett runs the America’s Finest City Half Marathon and 5K. So far, Baumann’s friends and family have raised $150,000 for the Children’s Tumor Foundation and plan to continue.
— A celebration of life for Garrett Baumann will be held 11 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 14, at La Jolla Presbyterian Church, 7715 Draper Ave., with a reception following. The public is invited. Memorial gifts in Baumann’s honor may be made to the Children’s Tumor Foundation: ctf.org/garrettbaumann