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.
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."
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.
"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."