Pinned. It’s a position no wrestler wants to find himself in; especially not on one of the biggest days of his wrestling career. However, on Thursday, June 12, 2014, Jake Calhoun found himself flat on his back unable to continue his journey toward accomplishing his lifelong goal of making the United States Wrestling World Team.
Jake lives for wrestling. From an athletic family, his father was a gymnast and his grandfather an Olympic gymnastics coach, Jake has spent much of his life working towards becoming an Olympic wrestler. He is an NCAA two-time Division III national qualifier and reached University Level All-American status. Professionally, at the time of the accident he was the head coach for Muhlenberg College’s wrestling program. In addition to coaching, he continued to compete at the senior level in Greco-Roman and Freestyle with Modern Day Gladiators Wrestling Club.
Jake traveled from his home in Pennsylvania to the Daytona, FL to compete in the Wresting World Team Trials along with his coaches and teammates. On Thursday, June 12, 2014 Jake went from being a strong, determined, healthy athlete, to fighting for his life in the intensive care. During an outdoor workout, Jake became overheated and collapsed. Unconscious and breathing rapidly, he was rushed by ambulance to a local hospital. His internal body temperature rose to life threatening levels; diagnosed with heat stroke, his organs started shutting down. By Saturday his condition grew worse and he was moved to the nearest transplant center, the University of Florida Health Shands Transplant Center in Gainesville, FL; his best chance for survival was a liver transplant.
With this devastating news, his family left their homes in Wisconsin to travel nearly 1,500 miles to Florida to support, watch, and wait. In addition to his family, friends from as far away as Colorado and Pennsylvania arrived to offer encouragement and support at the hospital. A cautiously optimistic team of doctors began the paperwork and evaluations Jake needed to receive a liver transplant. Jake tired easily, but fought to stay awake and visit with what the nurses called his “entourage”. On afew occasions when he was feeling strong enough he went for a walk through the ICU with 5-8 people following him and the nurses. When awake, Jake constantly wanted to know what he could do to get better. His inner competitor wanted work through the injury, even going so far as to ask the nurses if he could do squats.
Jake’s skin and eyes were yellow from the jaundice. His arms, legs, hands and feet were swollen to resemble balloons. His body frequently shook with hiccups and tremors originating in his legs. When he was finally allowed something to drink he made a very specific request – he wanted room temperature water. Without his liver filtering the toxins from his body, Jake’s mind was “fuzzy”. Sometimes Jake’s answers were quiet humorous, he was convinced after he read the label that the Osmolite bottle connected to his feeding tube contained an omelet. His mom started keeping a list of the funny things he said. To be fair, he wasn’t the only one saying humorous things. After overhearing a group of hospital interns wondering what happened to Jake’s ears his mom explained he had “cabbage ears” from wrestling, only to have his sister remind her it is referred to as cauliflower, not cabbage.
On June 19th, a week after the accident, doctors told Jake and his family that they didn’t think his liver had a chance of recovering from the trauma of the heat stroke; his liver functioned at 5% of its normal capacity, which indicated to the doctors that Jake would not survive without a transplant. The transplant team assessed Jake as a Status 1; according to the MELD scale used to evaluate liver transplant patients, Status 1 patients have sudden and severe onset of liver failure and a life expectancy without a transplant of only a few days. Less than one percent of liver transplant candidates are in this category.
The same day he was listed, an offer was made for Jake to be the secondary recipient for a liver transplant taking place at the same hospital. He was prepped, with a whirlwind of activity: medical professionals rushed in and out, various forms were signed and testing procedures completed.
As doctors explained the transplant procedure, Jake told his Mom he wanted to live and that he would do whatever was needed to make that happen, he “just wanted to live”.
The primary patient received the liver, so Jake’s surgery didn’t take place that night. Jake’s health worsened with each day. By Sunday morning rounds Jake was having a difficult time answering simple questions such as the date or where he was. The doctor prepared Jake and his family for what might come, saying that if Jake’s overall health continued to deteriorate, it may be necessary to insert a breathing tube. The liver is an important organ controlling over 500 functions in the body. Without his liver functioning properly the toxins were building in Jake’s system causing him to become increasingly confused and damaging other vital organs.
Luckily, that night, Jake received the amazing news – the doctors found a match! His surgery was scheduled for 3 am on Monday, June 23, 2014. Jake was confused and anxious as they prepared him for surgery. As he waited for the transplant team to take him to the operating room, Jake’s inner warrior kicked in, driving him to do whatever he could to get into surgery. He repeatedly tried to jump out of bed, saying “let’s go, let’s go.” His parents waited with him until it was time. At 3:13 am family and friends gathered together in the surgical waiting room, armed for the long night ahead: blankets, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and various other snacks. They napped, either in chairs or on the floor, while it was quiet. Sleep eluded Jake’s dad, who instead paced all night waiting for news from the transplant team about his youngest son.
As the sun started to rise, the smell of coffee wafted in as other families began to enter the waiting area. Just before 8 am, a surgical nurse came to tell the family that the new liver was in place and functioning, but that the surgery would continue for a few more hours. Finally, eight hours after they took Jake to the operating room, the lead surgeon entered the waiting area looking tired but wearing a fresh white lab coat. He shared the details of the surgery: everything had gone well; Jake tolerated the procedure without any complications; and the new liver was in and functioning. The surgeon said it was good the transplant happened when it did because Jake probably couldn’t have survived much longer. Prior to the surgery, the team of doctors estimated that Jake’s injured liver was functioning at a small percent, but saw during the procedure that it was completely necrotic. It was a miracle Jake had survived so long; the transplant came at just the right time.
Today, Jake is recovering from his ordeal in Florida with his dad by his side to care for him. He’s awaiting the transplant team’s approval to transfer him to a specialist near his home in Pennsylvania. Jake is anxious to get back to coaching at Muhlenberg College. His team started school the week of August 26th and he is looking forward to joining them on campus. For now, the doctors are hopeful he might be able to leave Florida in the fall; Jake wants nothing more than to return to Pennsylvania before wrestling season starts.
Jake has an extensive network of friends and family working together with National Foundation for Transplants (NFT) to help raise money for his transplant related expenses. NFT is a 501(c) 3 nonprofit organization dedicated to helping organ and tissue recipients succeed. To learn more about NFT visit www.transplants.org. To read more about Jake’s story you can visit his personal NFT campaign homepage, Jacob Calhoun.
In the meantime, watch here for updates and exciting events planned by his fundraising committee. First up is Laps for a Liver, then a multi-state event organized with Texas Road House (details to be posted soon) and a 2015 Wrestler Calendar (get your photos ready to enter). Like the Facebook page, follow the blog and check back often for more information!