- Associated Press - Sunday, February 8, 2015

HOLLAND, Mich. (AP) - Even though he had just been told how close he came to dying, Colin Choummanivong only wanted to know one thing - if he could ever wrestle again.

Choummanivong, a senior at Holland High, was just waking up from a month-long coma due to a serious allergic reaction, but all he was concerned with was if he was going to have to abandon the one thing he’s built his entire life around.

“Once I woke up, the first thing I was wondering was, ‘can I wrestle?’” he told The Holland Sentinel ( https://bit.ly/1LMpc4W ). “The doctor told me I not might be able to and I started crying. I couldn’t believe it because that’s the thing I love the most.”

Through the grind of any sports season, coming to practice day after day can seem like a chore.

However, Choummanivong views any day he gets to come to wrestling practice as a gift, given how close he was to never setting foot on a mat ever again.

Choummanivong has excelled this season, sporting a 23-3 record at 125 pounds, but it’s all the more amazing considering he missed his entire junior season in 2013-14 following a life and death battle with Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a rare, serious disorder of skin and mucous membranes.

It all started in August 2013, when Choummanivong went to the doctor to get a pimple on his neck examined.

“I was training really hard during the summer and I had a little pimple on my neck, so I went to the doctor to get some medicine for it,” he said. “Once I started taking that medicine, I had an allergic reaction and it was Stevens-Johnson.”

According to the Mayo-Clinic, Stevens-Johnson Syndrome can be brought on by a reaction to a medication or an infection, beginning with flu-like symptoms followed by a painful red or purplish rash that spreads and blisters.

Choummanivong started to develop symptoms immediately, going to a local hospital for four consecutive days before officially getting the diagnosis on his final visit.

He was then transferred to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, where his condition rapidly deteriorated.

“My skin started blistering and boiling and I couldn’t take the pain anymore,” he said. “They had to put me in a medically-induced coma for nine days because of all the pain. But because of all the drugs they had me on, I didn’t wake up until a month later.”

Choummanivong said all he could remember were brief moments of consciousness, not knowing that close to 100 people came to visit him in the hospital while he was in a coma. The two people who spent the most time at Choummanivong’s side were his mother and Andrew Armbruster, a close friend Choummanivong described as a “brother.”

“It was such a scary situation and I didn’t know what to say,” Armbruster said. “It was hard, but I kept praying every day for him. He looked like a baby with how much skin he lost.”

Choummanivong said being in a coma felt like he had just slept an entire day - completely oblivious to how close he came to not waking up.

“I had glimpses of waking up and seeing people, but it was just flashes,” he said. “It felt like a long sleep. You wake up so dead tired and you’re like ‘What happened?’

“They came up to me and asked me if I knew who the president is and if I knew what year it was. They told me the date and I was shocked. They told me I had a 50/50 chance of waking up or dying.”

Choummanivong looked like someone on their deathbed, losing close to 20 pounds and four layers of his skin on top of waking up with a dislocated shoulder.

“I kind of processed all of it pretty quick. It hit me deep, but I think it hit everyone else a lot deeper,” he said.

With a long recovery ahead, Choummanivong started the healing process.

“I had blisters in my mouth and I couldn’t really eat because it hurt so much to eat,” he said. “The only thing I was able to do was eat apple sauce and pudding and drink fluids.”

Doctors wanted Choummanivong to stay in the hospital for three months, but his condition progressed quicker than anticipated and he went home at the end of October to continue his recovery.

Choummanivong spent the rest of the fall semester confined to his house, sleeping and eating while he continued to heal from the toll the syndrome took on his body.

“My hands were peeling and everything was peeling,” he said. “I started to put on some weight and once everything peeled, I felt fine. I had to wear sunscreen every day and I had to wear a lot of sweaters because my skin was so sensitive. But it felt good just to leave the house.

“I could actually shave and I could eat pizza like a normal kid, and it felt really good.”

His improved condition allowed Choummanivong to return to school for the winter semester in January, and the first thing he wanted to do was see his teammates and support them at a match.

While his presence was certainly a boost for the team, Choummanivong still had a ways to go before he could even think about getting back on the mats.

“He was so weak. He had to restart everything,” Holland wrestling coach Nick Lewin said. “It started last spring when the doctor finally told him he could start working out and come to matches. He’d get so tired so quick, but you could tell he wasn’t going to let that stop him.”

But for someone who seemed like such a natural at the sport prior to his emergency, Choummanivong admitted he started to doubt his skills after struggling through his first few matches.

“Once summer hit, I did a few offseason tournaments and camps just to get back into it and get it back in my mind,” he said. “My body wasn’t super ready, so I was kind of getting my butt whooped and I was like ‘Man, this sucks. I’m not going to be as good next year.’”

Those summer struggles proved to be a fluke, though, because Choummanivong has returned to form for the Dutch this season, serving as one of anchors for first-year coach Lewin.

Lewin coached Choummanivong in middle school and his freshman year under former varsity coach Steve Kruithoff, who retired following last season, and he’s just as surprised as anybody that Choummanivong returned in such a dominate fashion.

“Where he is right now and what he’s doing right now is amazing,” Lewin said. “It inspires me. It makes you want to just be happy every day that you’re alive. He’s passionate about it every day and it really puts some perspective in your life. I’ve learned a lot from him about just living life.”

The expectations for Choummanivong this season have substantially risen given his remarkable recovery, but those expectations are nothing compared to what Choummanivong has planned for himself for his senior season.

“This is my year,” he said. “My goal is the state finals. It’s go big or go home. I’m going for No. 1. Just stepping on the mat is the best feeling in the world. Every time I get on the mats, it’s pure happiness. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”


Information from: The Holland Sentinel, https://www.thehollandsentinel.com

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