Jan 29, 2015
Comeback Athlete: Jordan Bauman

Stratford (Wis.) High School

By R.J. Anderson

R.J. Anderson is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning. He can be reached at: [email protected].

Conventional wisdom says a high school athlete who is undergoing chemotherapy shouldn’t be able to run around a football field helping his team win a state championship. But after watching Jordan Bauman, a junior linebacker and receiver at Stratford (Wis.) High School do just that, Shawn Mullen, LAT, ATC, CSCS, the school’s Head Athletic Trainer, doesn’t put much stock in conventional wisdom.

Bauman’s story begins during the 2006-07 wrestling season, when he was diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia. Despite strictly following the prescribed treatments for the condition, which included an improved diet, Bauman went through the next summer feeling weak and listless. Though he consistently ate four meals a day and participated in a vigorous weightlifting program, he lost weight and his lifting numbers declined. Starting the summer at 195 pounds, Bauman had dropped to 187 by the time football preseason camp began in August.

He continued to struggle during football workouts. “His performance on the mile run and other measures of fitness were substandard for him,” says Mullen, who is contracted to provide coverage at the school through the Marshfield (Wis.) Clinic Sports Medicine Program. “In the mile, he was probably more than a minute over what he had run the previous year.”

Seeing the muscled, six-foot-four Bauman, a second-team all-conference player as a sophomore, lag behind his teammates, Mullen knew something wasn’t right. He became skeptical that iron deficiency was the correct diagnosis for the 17-year-old’s ills.

On a Monday, Aug. 27, three days after playing in the team’s first game, Bauman came to practice reporting a slew of new symptoms. “He told me that during the game he felt like he was going to black out and was having problems with his vision,” Mullen recalls. “Then, that day at practice, he again had vision problems, felt like he was going to black out whenever he stood up, and had chest pain when he tried to run. Those are not symptoms you normally associate with iron deficiency.”

After performing a short exam that consisted of listening to Bauman’s heart and lungs and feeling around his rib cage, Mullen was concerned it might be a cardiac issue, so he arranged for Bauman to see Team Physician and Marshfield Clinic Medical Director Laurel Rudolph-Kniech, MD, the next day. Rudolph-Kniech performed blood work and did a CT scan of Bauman’s chest, which revealed a large mass. That mass turned out to be one of many tumors in his body. The next day he was diagnosed with Stage III Hodgkin’s lymphoma, in which a malignancy of lymphatic tissue is found in the lymph nodes, liver, spleen, and bone marrow. Stage III refers to the existence of lymph node involvement on both sides of the diaphragm.

“The tumor in my chest was taking up a lot of space and putting pressure on my heart and lungs,” says Bauman. “That was what made it so hard to breathe and caused me to be lightheaded.”

In addition to the tumor in his chest, there were three softball-sized masses in his abdomen. Those tumors stretched from the lower part of his rib cage to his hip, putting pressure on his liver and his spleen.

Despite the scary findings, doctors told Bauman that Hodgkin’s lymphoma is treatable and that a full recovery was not out of the question. “I had never heard of the disease before, but when they mentioned it was cancer, my entire life flashed before my eyes,” Bauman says. “But the doctors said if I had to get cancer, this was the best type for me to get.”

Doctors initially told Bauman that his high school athletic career was likely over. However, after three rounds of chemotherapy spaced two weeks apart, Bauman began to feel like himself again. “The first three treatments got my blood counts back up and I started feeling a lot better,” he says. “At that point, we started talking about the possibility of playing football my senior year. As my treatments progressed, my prognosis got better and better and I thought maybe I could get back by wrestling season. Then, it seemed possible to get back on the football field in time for this year’s playoffs.”

As he improved, Bauman began regaining his strength and conditioning. A couple weeks after his diagnosis, he was working out on his own in the school weightroom. “The doctors told me to lift very light weight because they didn’t know if the tumors could handle anything heavy,” says Bauman, who also started talking to a college athlete who had played his freshman year of high school football while undergoing treatments for Hodgkin’s disease. “The player told me my leg strength would be the first thing to go, so I really concentrated on doing leg work. I kept it real light. For example, I usually did three sets of 15 squats with light weights, and then I would ride the stationary bike for about 25 minutes. I did a few upper-body exercises, but mostly leg stuff at higher repetitions.”

During this time, Mullen as well as the entire Stratford football community rallied around their teammate, working to keep his spirits up. “They definitely made me feel like part of the team,” says Bauman. “But they also made sure not to constantly bug me about it. They treated me like nothing was wrong, which was nice.”

Getting stronger and feeling better, Bauman was cleared by his doctors to return to practice and participate in non-contact drills in mid-October, which greatly lifted his spirits. But his participation was limited as he sometimes struggled to bounce back after the chemo treatments, which grew progressively more intense.

Bauman spent the first three weeks at practice doing team conditioning drills and running receiver routes, with Mullen keeping a very close eye on him. “I gave him a general rule of thumb to use his energy level and pain tolerance as a guide and to gradually progress every day,” says Mullen. “He was quite winded at first, but he progressed rapidly during those first few weeks. He was very motivated. He was definitely chasing the carrot to get back by the end of the season.”

On Nov. 6, with his tumors having shrunk dramatically, Bauman was cleared to return to competition. And his conditioning work had paid off. “By that point, I was feeling better than I’d felt in a year,” Bauman says. “I was probably in as good of shape as everybody else on the team. I felt like I could hang with anybody on the field.”

But before he could return to making hits and getting tackled, steps had to be taken to protect the Hickman port used to administer Bauman’s chemotherapy treatments. Located under his rib cage, the port protruded about an inch and a half from his skin and was about the size of a golf ball.

To cover the port, Mullen cut a donut-shaped pad out of a football tailbone pad. “I took the donut pad and molded a thermoplastic shell over the top of it,” Mullen says. “I applied Leukotape in an X-shaped pattern around his torso to secure the pad over his chemo port. That slipped on right where his shoulder pads ended. It worked perfectly.”

Three days after being cleared, Bauman was in uniform for the team’s state semifinal game. “I’ll always remember the way I felt when they called out his name as the starting linebacker,” says Mullen. “Emotions ran so high in that stadium–there weren’t very many dry eyes.”

Mullen says the coaches had planned to give Bauman the start, then limit his reps and use him strategically based on how he felt. However, once the game got going, that plan was thrown out the window. “He felt great and ended up playing almost the entire game,” says Mullen, who talked to Bauman every time he came off the field. “I was amazed at his energy. He had 15 tackles, several sacks, and a number of key receptions. He just shut down the other team’s running attack and Stratford won by 30.”

The next week, Bauman’s inspired play carried over into the championship game, which Stratford won handily to chalk up its fifth straight Class 6 state title.

From football, Bauman moved on to wrestling. And even with the intensity of his chemo treatments rising, he had a stellar season and advanced to the state tournament while wrestling at 215 pounds.

“During wrestling, the treatments got a lot harder and lasted five or six hours,” says Bauman. “It would take me two days just to get back to practice, and three days before I could wrestle in a match. So whenever I had a big match coming up, I tried to schedule my treatments at least three or four days before it.”

Since his initial diagnosis, Bauman’s weight has risen to 220 pounds. “Normally, they say a patient loses 10 pounds from when they start chemotherapy, but I’ve gained about 30,” Bauman says.

This spring, Bauman is finishing up his chemotherapy and will begin radiation treatments shortly thereafter. If all goes according to plan, after four weeks of radiation treatments, he should be tumor-free. He plans to step up his lifting and conditioning during the summer and work toward leading his team to another state championship. After that, he’d like to attend college and play football.

Bauman says the time away from the field may have actually made him a better player. Watching his teammates during games and practices allowed him to improve his mental approach to the game. “I treated games and practices like I was a coach,” Bauman says. “I watched film and studied all the positions and thought about what I could have done on a play. I think I’m a better player now because I’m a smarter player.”

The comeback has also given Bauman a whole new perspective on the opportunities he has. “I know not to take anything for granted, because you never know what could happen,” says Bauman.

Mullen admits there are times when he wonders what could have happened had he not pushed for a new diagnosis. “In hindsight, I realize that Jordan was actually playing that first game with an enlarged liver and an enlarged spleen–both of which were essentially protruding from underneath his rib cage,” Mullen says. “There’s a very real scenario where he could have taken a shot to either of those organs and died right there on the field.

“I count my blessings that didn’t happen,” he continues. “For me it’s a good lesson about moving forward: If you have doubts, trust your instincts and question the answers you’re given. Do it for the sake of the athlete.

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