April 16, 2002
No Petty Miracle: A Light in the Tigers' Darkness
Four months ago, Adam Pettyjohn was expected to compete for a spot in the Tigers' rotation. He can be forgiven for failing to live up to those expectations. You see, four months ago, Pettyjohn weighed more than Kate Winslet. Four months ago, he had a colon.
In January, Pettyjohn was suddenly struck by ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory condition of the bowel that occurs without warning. Its cause is unknown, and treatment is difficult. Patients afflicted with a mild case of the disease may suffer chronic symptoms of abdominal pain, nausea, and bloody diarrhea, along with fatigue and weight loss.
Pettyjohn didn't have a mild case. Abdominal pain? He said he felt like his stomach "exploded." Weight loss? He dropped 65 pounds in less than three months. Fatigue? He became so weak that he was unable to feed himself, because he lacked the strength to lift a spoon to his mouth.
He was finally admitted to Henry Ford Hospital (about 11 floors down from my dermatology clinic) three weeks ago, and had his colon surgically removed--the only definitive treatment for his ailment--under borderline emergency conditions. His surgery was deemed a success, and he was discharged on March 22. He is, of course, out for the year.
On April 6, I read an article in the Detroit Free Press, detailing his recovery. Accompanying the article was a picture of Pettyjohn with his wife, Deanna, and it was the picture that got me. He wasn't just thin; he was emaciated. He looked incredibly frail. His eye sockets were sunken, as if someone had poked out little pinholes where his eyes were supposed to be. He looked like someone who had been through something so terrible that it had left emotional as well as physical scars, as if he had just been rescued from a refugee camp.
It was a picture I wouldn't forget easily. The next day, while studying for an upcoming dermatology exam at the local Barnes & Noble, I looked up for a moment and saw the picture of Pettyjohn in front of me. Only it wasn't a picture--it was Pettyjohn, pouring some sugar into the cappuccino he had just picked up from the Starbucks counter. His wife was next to him, watching him intently, as if she were worried he might fall down at any moment. He was all bone, and his eyes had that same vacant look I had seen in the photograph.
I got up and walked over to him. "Mr. Pettyjohn?" I asked, "How are you?"
He looked at me, and suddenly, his eyes lit up. "I'm doing wonderful," he replied, and now a big grin had formed on his face. "Everything is going great."
He went on. "You wouldn't believe how much better I feel. Every day I feel stronger than I did the day before. The doctors say I'm doing great, and that I should be able to make a full recovery." His voice was vibrant.
I asked him whether he was starting to regain any of his lost weight. "Oh my gosh, yeah. You think I'm thin now, you should have seen me three weeks ago," and he laughed. He looked, right then, as if he could have laughed at anything.
He told me how, before the surgery, he couldn't have picked up the cappuccino he was holding at that moment. Deanna chimed in, telling me how she would have to feed him, spoonful by spoonful. They both told me about how comforting it had been to find out what was causing him to wither away, and how miraculous his turnaround had been since his surgery.
He told me how happy he was to be able to eat without suffering. "I have to avoid certain foods, like popcorn and peanuts, but otherwise the doctors haven't given me any restrictions," he beamed. His eyes were twinkling now. I asked him about how the Tigers had responded to his sudden illness. "They've been terrific," he said. "I can't tell you how understanding they've been, how good they've been to both of us."
The Pettyjohns told me many things. Adam answered my every question patiently and intently, as if he was the luckiest man in the world to be sipping a cup of coffee, standing next to his loving wife, and discussing his medical condition with a complete stranger for ten minutes.
I asked them how his struggle with ulcerative colitis had affected them as newlyweds. They had married on January 12, and the symptoms had first flared on their honeymoon. "If anything, I think going through this together has brought us closer to each other," Deanna said. As they looked into each other's eyes, there was no doubt that she was telling the truth.
I asked what was next for him. "Well, that's the great part," he said, "I'm allowed to do whatever I want, all I need to do is get my weight back and check in with our trainer every so often. After everything we've been through, it's so nice to spend some time together, to be able to just go see a movie or go down to the ballpark. It's been a blessing."
Yes, Pettyjohn really did call his ordeal "a blessing."
I wished him good luck, and he extended his hand. His grip was strong. And then he wandered into the bookstore with his wife, soaking in the simple pleasures of everyday life. He didn't look frail at all.
Pettyjohn's recovery is far from complete. He still wears a colostomy bag while the inflammation subsides in what remains of his bowels. In a few months he is scheduled to undergo a pair of surgeries designed to reattach his small intestine to his rectum. Months of arduous and tedious rehabilitation await him before he again steps on a mound, but I think he's going to be just fine. In fact, I think he already is.
It's been a nightmarish start to the season here in Detroit. Even as the losses mount, and fans bail, and heads roll, for at least one member of the Tiger family, these are the best of times. As the Tigers have followed eight straight losing seasons with eleven straight losses to start the season, it's difficult for Tiger fans to see any light at the end of the tunnel. Trust me, though, there is one. I know, because I have seen it. If you want to see for yourself, just say, "Hi" to Adam Pettyjohn when you get the chance, and look him in the eyes. He'll be more than happy to show you.