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Running on Empty : Football Satisfies a Hunger for Channel Islands’ Jeff Thomas as He Fights a Disease That Prevents Digestion of Solid Foods

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Jeff Thomas felt the familiar twinge in his lower abdomen and flinched. He knew what would come next, so he threaded through the maze of teammates toward the bench, where he found a resting place at one end.

The first half ended, the second began and still, Thomas, dressed in yellow sweat pants and a Channel Islands High No. 63 football jersey, sat on the bench, his head resting on his knees. Thomas, 17, remembered the score being 14-0 at halftime and the Raiders leading cross-town rival Hueneme, 21-0, just before he left. By that time, however, early in the third quarter, he was ready to go.

The ambulance carrying Thomas whisked him from the field to St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Oxnard where emergency room doctors pumped his stomach and administered medication to alleviate the pain. For Thomas, it was the same old thing. So routine, in fact, that in a couple of hours, he was back at Channel Islands High, sharing in his team’s 40-14 victory.

Once again, Thomas had been brought to his knees by the affliction known as chronic gastrointestinal pseudo-obstruction, which has prevented Thomas from eating solid food for months at a time. And once again Thomas, a 6-foot, 3-inch, 220-pound junior lineman, has fought back. As waves of searing pain wash away his defenses, he simply rebuilds--over and over again.

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After the game, team captain John Johnson presented Thomas with a perpetual trophy--a 3-foot-high award given annually to the Channel Islands-Hueneme winner--a rare honor for someone who has yet to play a down.

“It was a real touching moment,” Channel Islands Coach Joel Gershon said. “Especially since that trophy meant so much to the kids.”

Offensive tackle Russell Edwards was among the players who shared in the trophy presentation.

“It was pretty neat because it looked like tears were coming out of his eyes,” Edwards said. “We all gave him a hug. We could tell he was still in some pain.”

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Thomas kept the trophy through the weekend but brought it back to practice the following week in the back of his parents’ station wagon.

“I felt missing the game was enough, because that was an important game,” Thomas said. “But getting the trophy kind of made everything right. To not do anything and get that trophy, it was great.

“I didn’t think I did much, but they said for being out there and encouraging everybody, that I deserved it. I feel like the whole team deserves it. That’s why I got it here. I want to put it at the school. The school deserves it.”

Often, Thomas wonders what it would be like to be normal. The past year has been a collage of hospital rooms, 90-minute drives from his home in Oxnard to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in West Hollywood, sleepless nights and dashes to the emergency room. He cannot digest food and must be fed intravenously.

His high school experience is slipping away.

“That’s what I’m thinking now,” Thomas said while sitting in the bleachers at Channel Islands before practice. “That’s probably the hardest part. I can say this, though: I enjoyed most of it. Two weeks ago I thought it was all taken care of. I still knew I had the disease, but I thought I could eat now. But, it’s all obstructed again, so . . .”

Chronic gastrointestinal pseudo-obstruction is an affliction that has gone largely unrecognized and, therefore, undiagnosed until the past decade. Thomas, for example, had been showing symptoms since December but was not diagnosed until March.

Dr. Paul Hyman, chief of pediatric gastroenterology at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, ranks among the leaders in the fight against the ailment and spearheads efforts to educate the public about the disease.

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“The books say there are 100 to 200 people in the nation with the disease,” Hyman said. “I’ve seen 45 in the last few years since I got involved. I think there are 500 to 1,000 in the country. The estimates are so low because the recognition is low.”

There are varying degrees of severity in chronic gastrointestinal pseudo-obstruction. The extent of the symptoms ranges from vomiting once a day, along with constipation and the ability to digest only a small amount of food, to Thomas’ condition. Most fall somewhere in between.

“Jeff is one of the more severe,” Hyman said. “He’s one of the people who can eat nothing. It’s a horrible disease.”

The reasons are simple. Thomas’ intestines do not contract properly. They are “uncoordinated,” according to Hyman. Rather than contracting in one direction and, therefore, eliminating the waste, Thomas’ intestines contract in both directions. The food in his stomach has nowhere to go and his gut swells, which leads to the intense episodes of pain. His intestines react as if there was an actual obstruction, thus the name, “pseudo-obstruction.”

“His gut is totally uncoordinated,” Hyman said. “If his body was like that, he would be in a wheelchair.”

Researchers are attempting to discover the cause of the disease. Some of the patients develop the symptoms later in life, as did Thomas, and many children have been diagnosed within their first year. There are still more questions than answers, but there are signs of hope.

Cisapride, a drug developed by a New Jersey research company, has been proven to increase the number and strength of intestinal contractions. Hyman has recently issued the drug to 45 children.

“It was a miracle drug for four,” Hyman said. The other 41 have shown little or no improvement. But it is a beginning.

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Certainly, it is for Thomas, who has undergone surgery 8 times in the past 6 months at Cedars-Sinai to equip him with a catheter. In his periods without a catheter, as he is now, Thomas drinks fruit juices and Gatorade by the gallon. He began treatment with Cisapride this week.

His experiences with the catheters, tubes placed into the body to facilitate intravenous feeding, have not been good ones. Four times a catheter has been surgically implanted in his chest, and each time infection has necessitated its removal.

The result is a pair of 6-inch scars high on each side of his chest. The one on the right, from the last surgery, is still partially open. A foot-long scar also runs from his sternum to his lower abdomen.

The pain, at times, can be excruciating, but the fear can be worse.

“Every surgery, I get scared,” said Thomas, who is in something of a remission period. “I’ve had up to 106-degree temperatures--all kinds of things. I hang in there, though. I don’t like being put to sleep, because I never know if I’m going to have a reaction to the anesthetic. You don’t know if you’ll wake up. It’s like you can’t do anything after they put the mask on you. You can’t wake up after that.”

Thomas, who attends Channel Islands under an independent-study program because of his frequent absences, has been effectively shaking what cobwebs he can through football. School officials allowed Thomas to play on the advice of Dr. Edward Feldman, a gastroenterologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and the physician who diagnosed Thomas’ illness.

“We just went with what the doctor felt was in the best interest of the kid,” Assistant Principal Ralph Gonzales said. “We felt his doctor knew exactly what he was doing.”

Thomas approached Gershon last spring about trying out. Gershon, who was impressed with Thomas’ size and enthusiasm, invited him to participate in the Raiders’ summer program. Several weeks later, Gershon became aware of Thomas’ illness but never thought of revoking the invitation.

“I just could tell how important it was for him to be involved with the team,” he said.

Becky Thomas, Jeff’s mother, was initially taken aback by her son’s desire to play football but in time warmed to the idea.

“Here I had this son who was very ill and I was just kind of floored by it,” she said. “I didn’t want to tell him no, but I thought he would find it out on his own. As it turned out, I’m glad I didn’t say no.”

Thomas passed his physical and was given the go-ahead by his doctors, who said, in Thomas’ words: “Football’s not going to help, but it’s not going to hurt either.”

Now, Hyman seems to think it is a good idea.

“As a pediatrician I want adolescents to feel good about themselves and do as much as they can to be normal,” Hyman said. “I’m encouraged that he hasn’t withdrawn.”

Feldman expressed similar sentiments.

“I like the kids to live as normal a life as possible,” he said. “If they can maintain adequate nutrition, then they can maintain activity.”

And in that time, Thomas has continued to impress Gershon and the team. Thomas completes every drill when he is able. He attends practice unless hospitalized or when the pain is particularly acute.

“I was amazed at Jeff’s ability to keep up, with his desire to push himself to the brink,” Gershon said. “Jeff has got a lot of hunger, a lot of desire.”

But why would a 17-year-old with this condition expose himself to the day-to-day drudgery of football? He could be at home with a good book, rather than on the field with a good block. Why take a chance at irritating the situation?

Doesn’t he ever feel like acting like a sick person should?

“I feel like giving up on the surgeries and the hospitalizations,” Thomas said, “but never the football. Never anything to do with the football. If you were around these guys every day, you’d know why.

“Being with the team is the highlight of high school. The trophy, that’s a material thing. Being able to play, being out here . . .”

For the past two weeks, Thomas has been eating solid food. But no one can be sure how long the remission will last.

“Tomorrow he could be fine and the next day be back to nothing,” Becky Thomas said. “They just don’t know enough about it. We just have to believe something miraculous happened.”


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