Saturday will mean a lot for Patrick Mertens.
It will be the defensive tackle’s first game with teammates since a rare illness attacked his body. It will be another milestone in his return, and another chance to reflect on how impossible it all seemed a year ago.
“There were a lot of struggles along the way for me,” Mertens said Monday. “I’ve been thinking back this week about where I was a year ago. It’s kind of unimaginable for me. I’m just so thankful that I could recover.”
Mertens played on the Cowboys’ defensive line as a redshirt freshman in 2010. He had 39 tackles and two quarterback sacks in 12 games. The performance set high expectations for Mertens’ sophomore season. But that season never came.
Mertens got sick that summer while at home in Sterling, Colo. First he had West Nile Virus. Shortly after he had pneumonia. While hospitalized, things started getting worse. Mertens started feeling tingling sensations throughout his body and had trouble controlling his movement.
“I could walk, but not very good,” Mertens said. “I couldn’t really eat. I lost control of my face and my muscles.”
The problem was no longer pneumonia. And it wasn’t getting better. Mertens’ condition continued to worsen as doctors tried to find out what was wrong. Returning to Laramie moved to the bottom of Mertens’ priorities.
“I was just kind of concentrating on living,” he said.
Mertens was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a rare autoimmune disease that affects approximately 1 person in 100,000 per year. The cause of the disorder is not completely known, but it often occurs after a previous illness, like a lung infection.
Doctors told Mertens the disorder caused the tingling and paralysis because it damaged the outer covering of his nerves. They also said his chances of recovery were good if he underwent the necessary treatment.
Mertens said he was in the hospital for three weeks. He spent one of the weeks undergoing plasmapheresis, a method of treating Guillan-Barre Syndrome that is similar to dialysis. Blood was taken from Mertens’ body and cycled through a machine that took out damaged antibodies. The blood was then pumped back in.
“I went through a few treatments of that,” Mertens said. “Four or five, I think. And then it just takes a long time to heal.”
Most people make a full return to health after the disorder. But it sometimes takes as many as three years. Doctors told Mertens he had a less-serious case, and estimated his time of recovery at six to eight months.
As the Wyoming football team played its season, Mertens began the process of regaining what he lost. By the time he was released, his stay in the hospital had stripped him of close to 50 pounds, along with the strength he had worked hard for in the weight room. Mertens started meeting with a physical therapist. With a month left in Wyoming’s season, he wondered if he could be ready to play the following year.
“I thought, maybe if I continued progressing, I could come back,” Mertens said.
Wyoming senior linebacker Korey Jones watched Mertens continue to rebuild his 6-foot-5 frame toward his old playing weight during workouts in Laramie earlier this year.
“It was kind of crazy to see both ends for me,” Jones said. “When I came in, he was big. Then everything happened. To watch him get back to it was really impressive.”
When spring practices came, Mertens participated.
“He wasn’t full strength in spring,” Wyoming coach Dave Christensen said. “I don’t know that he was at the start of training camp. But he’s certainly as close to where he left off now as he has been.”
Mertens says minor, lingering symptoms bothered him until just a couple months ago. Since then he has felt, for the most part, completely healthy.
His recovery from Guillan-Barre came in time for him to earn the backup spot at defensive tackle for Wyoming’s first game Saturday.
The disorder that stole his sophomore season won’t do the same this year.