Swimmer Nick Meyer, 16, received a special gift on his June birthday last year — a personalized autograph from his idol, Olympic legend Michael Phelps.
A competitive swimmer for Texas Gold swim team in Georgetown and the Harker Heights High School swim team, Nick aspires to be like Phelps. And though he appears to be headed in the right direction to reach that dream now, just a year ago he was forced to stop swimming when he dove into a life-threatening battle with Crohn’s disease.
Nick began swimming competitively when he was 11. He took lessons at the Boys & Girls Club in Killeen and exhibited natural speed and ability in the water. When he was younger, he played soccer for five years but was looking for another sport to get into, his mom, Robbin Meyer, said.
“He’s obviously not the right size for football,” she said, referring to his slight frame.
Nick joined the Boys & Girls Club summer swim league and the Fort Hood Dolphins swim team in 2008. Later, he became a member of the exclusive Texas Gold swim team in Georgetown, and in 2011, his first year at Harker Heights High School, he landed a spot on the school team.
When Nick first became ill in September 2011, he thought nothing of it. His symptoms resembled those of a stomach flu, so he waited for it to run its natural course. But as the days, weeks and months passed, the symptoms lingered.
A typical teenager, Nick didn’t tell his parents about his frequent trips to the bathroom until sometime in October, Robbin Meyer said. When they finally learned he was sick. Nick was running a low-grade fever and had started losing weight. At just 92 pounds, he couldn’t afford the weight loss.
“We thought it was this protein shake he was on that had creatine in it, and we thought it would just go away, so we took him off of that,” his mother said. “But the symptoms continued and the diarrhea progressively got worse.”
Throughout the onset of his illness, Nick continued to swim despite having to leave the pool for bathroom breaks. Ultimately, the diarrhea and weight loss took its toll. He stopped eating, lost his strength, and it showed in his swimming form.
“I literally had to crawl out of the pool,” Nick said.
In the meantime, doctors couldn’t find the source of Nick’s ailment and told him to stop swimming.
“We did lab tests and ran just about every kind of test you can imagine, and everything came up negative, like E. coli,” Robbin Meyer said. “His white blood cell count was high, and every time we did a search on the Internet (the results) came up cancer, so we just stopped looking.”
Sick as a dog
Nick’s condition worsened. His chronic diarrhea caused an abscess to form in the rectum, leaving Nick in such severe pain that he couldn’t walk upright or sit normally.
On Dec. 6, the abscess started to rupture. Nick was admitted to McLane Children’s Hospital Scott & White in Temple and surgery was scheduled.
The first time Dr. Jonathan Ramprasad, a pediatrician, saw Nick, he said the 15-year-old weighed about 70 pounds and was literally “sick as a dog.”
“He looked like a child; he was sick, malnourished. He looked like a concentration camp victim. He had the most disfiguring and severe case of perianal disease I have ever seen. I don’t know how he dealt with the pain.”
Sometimes, he didn’t want to deal with it. Nick said he often wanted to “just give up,” but his parents wouldn’t let him.
On Christmas Eve, Nick was sent home to recover. But the next day, complications arose and his parents took him back to the emergency room at McLane. It was there that doctors told them they had found the cause of Nick’s illness.
Crohn’s Disease is a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract that belongs to a group of conditions knows as inflammatory bowel diseases. Named for Dr. Burrill B. Crohn, who first described the disease in 1932, Crohn’s is thought to affect as many as 700,000 men and women in the United States, according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America.
The disease can occur at any age, but it’s more prevalent among young adults ages 15 to 35. Crohn’s is often hereditary, as it was in Nick’s case. As it turns out, one of his grandfathers also suffered from Crohn’s Disease, as does an aunt.
Once doctors made Nick’s diagnosis, they immediately began treating it. Nick had another surgery on Jan. 2 and started IV therapy with the medication Remicade. A week later, he was back in school, and in February, doctors cleared him to swim again.
Now, almost a year later, Nick’s disease is under control with diet, exercise and IV therapy every two months. He has gained 40 pounds, grown a few inches, and rebounded in the competitive swimming world. His doctors are proud of the progress he has made and believe his recovery is a reflection of their own success.
“He’s a fascinating kid,” Ramprasad said. “After we treated him both medically and surgically, Nick has done incredibly well with control of his (Crohn’s Disease). In a calendar year, he went from looking like a sick, malnourished kid to this athlete who was able to start swimming again and climb the ranks.”
Although Crohn’s is something Nick will live with the rest of his life, he’s not letting it define him. Through it, he has become stronger, both mentally and physically, he said, and he hopes his story will encourage others who are dealing with the disease to just keep swimming.
“Never give up,” he said.