The medical field is full of stories of mystery and hope. These real-life examples of people finding answers about what ails them and learning to cope with health changes helps others to meet their own challenges. One such story is that of Charcandrick West, the star running back of the Kansas City Chiefs. For West, his rheumatoid arthritis came as an unexpected shock that would terrify both him and his family.
When West was 14-years-old and was scoring touchdowns for his high school football team, the Lumberjacks, he had no idea that he would be making it to the big leagues. He also had no idea how many obstacles he was going to have to overcome to get there.
After one of his freshman games when he was on the varsity team and in perfect shape, his world changed. He scored three touchdowns that night and woke up in the morning in the worst pain of his life. Nothing had happened at the game that would indicate why all of his joints felt like they were on fire in the morning.
He awoke unable to get out of the fetal position with tight muscles and excruciating pain. West’s stepfather Toccara Ford recalls that he woke screaming for his mother in the morning. Ford said that, “He had shooting pain and then some welts broke out on him, like somebody had whipped him … He would scream like somebody was killing him whenever you’d touch him.”
Diagnosis was not easy
It is hard to imagine how horrifying this must have been for their family. Their athletic and previously healthy boy now had inexplicable pain throughout his whole body. Ford and West’s mother Demetrice West rushed him to Springhill Medical Center in their hometown in Louisiana where doctors diagnosed West with a virus and sent them home. This information did nothing to improve West’s symptoms.
The family chose to try another medical facility when West was still not improving. They went to a hospital 45 minutes south of where they lived in Minden, LA. There, West was tested for all kinds of viruses that can result in joint pain such as West Nile, hepatitis, and even HIV. At a loss, the doctors at this facility were at least honest about their limitations. They sent the family to the children’s hospital in Shreveport.
The children’s hospital was, to the family’s dismay, still unable to give them a diagnosis. So, this time they sent them to Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock. There they did X-rays, MRIs, and a very painful bone marrow biopsy, but this gave them nothing, so they returned to Shreveport.
Finally, after all the tests, pain, stress, worry, and uncertainty, they got their answer. West had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
We have all been teenagers. We know how important and life-consuming social and sports activities can be in your teens. When these things are your life, and they risk being taken away, it is hard to imagine what you will do next. For West, not being able to play football would be devastating. His juvenile RA was so severe that the medical team did not think he would be able to play again. His family could see how crushed West was. For kids, chronic diseases can completely alter the whole course of their life and change how they view themselves, but the family did not give up there.
West started treatment
West was started on an immunosuppressive drug called anakinra, to hopefully halt the attack that his immune system had mounted on his joints. Taking this medication meant that West had to give himself injections every day in the arms, legs, hips, or stomach.
West now says the hardest part during those first days was adjusting to his new daily life. Having to give yourself injections every morning before school is hardly what most teenagers want to be doing. His mom stuck by his side, though. When he was in the hospital, she worked hard to make sure he had some semblance of a normal life. She would make him get out of bed to shower and then go to the game room to interact with the other kids.
Demetrice recalls when one nurse told her, “You’re a strong mom, but you’re a mean mom.” This is not exactly what most moms want to hear when they’re helping their kids through tough points in life. Her response was, “No, I’m not mean. I just refuse to let my child lay here and give up on life.”
West started taking the anakinra and his results were great, although the whole situation was tough on him. After using the medication, the rash, fever, disappeared almost immediately. After some time, his pain and stiffness went away as well. Towards the end of the year he was able to start weaning off of his medication. West started practicing again, but had lost 60 pounds and desperately needed to rebuild his strength, so he started lifting weights and running.
Rehabilitation and remission
Starting slow enabled him to rebuild his strength and eventually he was able to train harder. Even after being at school all day, and then practice, he would come home and have his stepfather throw the football with him. Now that is determination, and his hard work paid off. West was able to play the last seven games of his freshman year and only continued to increase his strength. When he was 17, his doctors declared that he was in full remission. His determination continued into college where at Abilene Christian University West scored 30 touchdowns and later signed on as running back for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Imagine being told that you will never play the sport you love again, and then landing a spot in the NFL. Despite this complete turnaround, his mother is still concerned. Whenever he is tired, she is the first to question him about how he is feeling.
West has made two very proud parents and rightfully so. He persevered through some life changing events at a young and tough age, and as a result, he has accomplished his goals and offered up hope to other people affected by RA. West paints a different picture. He attributes most of his success to his mother who pushed him when he did not want to go further and who never gave up on him.
This is a story of perseverance and strength, the power of tough love and one kid’s determination. West’s story can be inspiring to anyone battling a chronic condition and in need of a little strength and support. His message tells us that even when we are told that we cannot do something, working hard and never giving up can help us accomplish our goals. In a sense this shows us that despite what life throws in our paths, we are the creators of our own future. For parents, his story shows how love can come in different forms and that if you are not getting the answers that you need from your child’s healthcare provider, seek other opinions until you get an answer and find someone who is able to work on a solution.