In the summer of 2007, Fernando Pisani
was living large.
He was playing for his hometown team, the Edmonton Oilers
, and entering the second season of a four-year deal. The summer before that, he was the toast of the town after a Conn Smythe-worthy performance (14 goals, 18 points in 24 games) in the Oilers' run to Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final.
"I was diagnosed in 2005, but it wasn't until a couple of years ago I basically felt the wrath of my illness," Pisani said. "I lost about 40 pounds and lots of blood. I went from being 210 pounds, in great shape, and taking care of myself, to basically walking up a flight of stairs and being exhausted. That is what this did to me. It was just unbelievable what I was going through."
Ulcerative colitis is a rare disease of the intestine, specifically the large intestine or colon, that includes characteristic ulcers, or open sores, in the colon. Ulcerative colitis is believed to have a systemic etiology that leads to many symptoms outside the intestine.
Ulcerative colitis has similarities to Crohn's disease, and features periods of exacerbated symptoms, and periods that are relatively symptom-free. Although the symptoms of ulcerative colitis can sometimes diminish on their own, the disease usually requires treatment to go into remission.
"This is one illness people don't like to talk about and I was one of those people," Pisani said. "I was hoping it would go away with time, but the longer I waited the worse it got and I was in a situation where I needed to go see a doctor right away and I had to get the right meds and see the right people to get the proper treatment."
For the first two years after his diagnosis, Pisani had experienced minor symptoms, but he never took action. Because of the private nature of the symptoms (constant diarrhea mixed with blood) he chose not to divulge his diagnosis. Whenever the illness flared up, Pisani shrugged it off and battled through it until they went away. But just prior to the 2007-08 season, these symptoms were altering Pisani's lifestyle and hockey career so drastically that he had no choice but to see a doctor and face the reality that his life as he knew it could change drastically.
"I kept telling the team trainers and everyone else it was just a flu or basically I was just sick, but sooner or later everyone could see this was serious and I finally told them what was wrong," Pisani said. "The Oilers were amazing with the way they handled this. They asked how I wanted to approach it with the media and public. They gave me a choice to either go public or just say I had an undisclosed injury. But you knew the media would find out sooner or later, so the approach I took was to talk about it and once I did, I was shocked at how many people came up to me and said they had it or someone they know were going through the same symptoms and issues."
After going to numerous specialists and finally finding the right medicine, Pisani started to get healthy again. But he didn't stop there. Not only did he divulge his illness to the media, he decided to use his status as an athlete and public figure to help others suffering from ulcerative colitis. Pisani started to visit other patients and speak to them about their battles with the disease.
"When you realize that kids were suffering the way I did, I just can't imagine how they do it," Pisani said. "I mean, I'm an athlete, in top shape and it beat me down, so what happens to a poor child?"
Pisani figured that if he could help show these children and as many ulcerative colitis patients as possible that even pro athletes share their suffering and feelings, maybe he could help them battle through and also help further research on the disease. Last month, Pisani teamed with Centocor Ortho Biotech Inc. and their "In the Zone for UC" campaign to form the "Shoot and Score Against Ulcerative Colitis" program. For each point Pisani has scored or scores in the remaining games this season, Centocor Ortho Biotech Inc will donate $5,000 to the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America.
"We are athletes, but we are human too and get sick just like anyone else," Pisani said. "It's easy for people to look at us as invincible. Sometimes I think as athletes we do too and this obviously grounded me if I needed it and put things in perspective. It's not always about hockey or work. It's about just living every day and being thankful. I couldn't even do that and live normally when it was really bad.
"When you realize that kids were suffering the way I did, I just can't imagine how they do it. I mean, I'm an athlete, in top shape and it beat me down, so what happens to a poor child?" -- Fernando Pisani
"Everyone goes through different illnesses and it's how you handle it, how you approach it and the positive mindset you need to have to get through things that matters. That's what I'm doing, stay positive and no matter how bad things get I try to have a positive state of mind and help others do the same."
For more information on "In the Zone for UC" campaign and the "Shoot and Score Against Ulcerative Colitis" program, go to www.ucintheZone.com.