SEATTLE — Last year left Texas Rangers reliever Jake Diekman with two scars on his stomach. The first one is a few inches long and runs vertically just below his belly button. That’s where he lost a major organ.
The second one — which is a slightly smaller — runs horizontally on his right side, just a short distance from his belly button. That’s where his guts hung out of his body for a few weeks in 2017.
Things are a little more normal this year. The 31-year-old Diekman opened the season healthy, and he has already exceeded his innings total from last year. Through 19 1/3 innings, Diekman has a 3.72 ERA. He’s struck out 26 hitters. It’s as if nothing has changed.
That’s exactly what Diekman expected. Even after life-altering surgery kept him from pitching most of last year, he never doubted he would get back on the mound.
“I knew I would pitch again,” Diekman told Yahoo Sports. “It was just a matter of when my body would tell me that I was ready to go.”
Two offseasons ago, Diekman’s ulcerative colitis — a chronic disease of the colon that impacts over 900,000 Americans — flared up around Thanksgiving. He tried to get it under control, but the issue lingered into December. At that point, he let the Rangers know something was up and they recommended he see a doctor at the Mayo Clinic.
Diekman is one of the few athletes who has gone public with his struggles with ulcerative colitis. There are a handful of others. New Orleans Saints linebacker Michael Mauti also has ulcerative colitis. Cleveland Cavaliers forward Larry Nance Jr. and Olympic gold medalist Kathleen Baker battle Crohn’s disease, which is also classified as an inflammatory bowel disease.
After a multitude of tests, doctors determined Diekman would undergo a colectomy. His entire colon would have to be removed. For at least a few weeks, Diekman would have to live with an ostomy bag. Diekman’s bag would not be permanent. Because his disease was limited to just his colon, Diekman was going to undergo a J-Pouch procedure once things cleared up. Doctors would create a pouch with his small intestine to “replace” his colon.
“They took out my entire colon and basically just pulled down my small intestine and said, ‘Here you go,’ ” he explains.
A colectomy can be both physically and mentally draining on a patient. And the changes that come with it can weigh on a person. Walking can be a chore for the first few days as your abdomen heals. The types of food a patient can eat are heavily restricted while their body adjusts. Foods are slowly re-introduced over the course of a few weeks. You have to figure out how to use ostomy equipment, which takes time. And you have to constantly plan for scenarios where you might have to change your bag in public.
For the first few days after his first surgery, Diekman struggled with the transition. That’s when his mother-in-law stepped in.
“I had two bad days in the hospital where my emotions were down,” he says. “I felt really depressed. And then my mother-in-law was like, ‘If you don’t want this. If you don’t think you can handle it, pick someone else and put it on them.’
“I just couldn’t do it. From that point on, my whole mindset kind of changed.”
While the J-Pouch procedure ensured Diekman wouldn’t have to live with an ostomy bag for the rest of his life, it also meant he would have to undergo multiple operations before he would be able to return to the field. After each surgery, he would have to wait six weeks before he was allowed to ramp up his baseball activity.
“I couldn’t lift anything over five pounds for like six weeks after each surgery,” he says. “The second that six weeks was over, I was throwing every day until the next surgery.”
Diekman set reminders in his phone’s calendar for exactly six weeks after each procedure so that he wouldn’t forget to throw on the first possible day he was cleared. He did this after both his first and second procedures.
Following his final surgery, doctors told Diekman he was allowed to throw as soon as he could handle the pain. He underwent the surgery on a Friday. By Monday, Diekman was pumping fastballs in the low-to-mid 90s.
Recovery wasn’t always smooth. There were times last spring training that Diekman would have to cut throwing sessions short after the adhesive on his ostomy bag came loose. There were a couple catheters, one of which was inserted while Diekman watched the Rangers from his hospital bed.
The nurse inserted the catheter as Diekman was watching a close game. The Rangers and Washington Nationals were tied in extras. The catheter worked, and Diekman was able to empty his bladder, after which the device would have to be removed. Thankfully, his teammates had excellent timing. Robinson Chirinos blasted a go-ahead three-run homer in the 11th. With Diekman distracted by the big hit, the nurse quickly pulled out his catheter.
Diekman doesn’t hesitate to share these stories because he wants to be a resource for others dealing with inflammatory bowel diseases. He made sure to document his surgeries and recovery on his Instagram page last year.
Being open about his disease was part of the reason he and his wife, Amanda, started the Gut it Out Foundation. It wasn’t just to raise awareness. It was to create a culture where other patients felt comfortable swapping stories and offering assistance to those who are going through the same thing.
That’s exactly what will happen the next time the Rangers are in Seattle. The Seattle Mariners will hold Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation night Sept. 29. The event — which the team has hosted over the past couple seasons — is organized by the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation’s Northwest Chapter. The Chapter picked this year’s date knowing Diekman would be in town.
The conclusion of that September series will mark Diekman’s first full season after his surgery. It will give him proof that everything is back to normal, just like he expected.
The scars will still be there, of course. But even they’ll be a little more faded.
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Chris Cwik is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Chris_Cwik
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