Cal Poly

Cal Poly assistant basketball coach overcame severe intestinal ailment this summer

Cal Poly assistant basketball coach Mitch Freeman lost more than 20 pounds during a life-threatening illness recently.
Cal Poly assistant basketball coach Mitch Freeman lost more than 20 pounds during a life-threatening illness recently. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

When most college basketball coaches are readying for the summer recruiting season, Mitch Freeman was up at night, curled in the fetal position and quivering.

The fourth-year Cal Poly men’s basketball assistant is tough. He played his entire senior season at Marysville Pilchuck (Wa.) High in 1999 on a torn ACL.

A recreational distance runner who had just completed a recent half marathon and was committed to quitting coffee, Freeman had never even spent a night in a hospital.

But in early June, Nicole, Freeman’s wife of nearly two years, had seen enough and sent him to the emergency room.

Freeman was wasting away before her eyes, losing pounds by the day and gaining shades on the pale scale in what he originally thought was just a routine flare-up of a chronic abdominal condition.

It wasn’t.

About six years ago, Freeman had a bout with ulcerative colitis, a type of inflammatory bowel disease that affects the lining of the large intestine, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Back then, he let the situation fester for a few months before seeking medical attention, but when he did, it only took a few weeks of medication to clear up.

Since being initially treated, the condition had been problem free. In the time that passed, Freeman almost forgot about it.

When it resurfaced, experience told him it wasn’t an urgent issue, but this flare-up was anything but routine as Freeman found out during a 10-day hospital stay in June when Mustangs players and coaches feared for his life.

“I had severe abdominal pain,” said Freeman, who felt his first repeat flare-up in March and started seeking out a grastrointestinal specialist in San Luis Obispo shortly after. “I was going to the bathroom 12 times a day. I was severely dehydrated and wasn’t eating much but still going to the bathroom that many times.

“It just kind of spun out of control. It got really bad and my colon got severely inflamed.”

As Freeman was waiting for a doctor’s appointment to arrive, he was losing blood in his stool. His body wouldn’t allow him to swallow solid food, and Ensure liquid nutritional supplements eventually became his only form of nutrition.

At his lowest point, Freeman dropped from a healthy 165 pounds to 144. And Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero, who brought Freeman with him from Seattle University when he took the job in 2009, said he first noticed his longest tenured assistant was ill when his voice lost its power.

Initially confident that Freeman would be back on the court soon, Callero visited his room at Sierra Vista Medical Center and started to see the darker side of the disease.

“Many people said he looked like a chemo patient,” Callero said. “His head was shaved already, he became very thin and he looked like he was on his last turn there.

“By the eighth or ninth day, I heard the doctor talk. I was concerned for his life at that point, and when you’re concerned for somebody’s life, you’re like, ‘Come on, is it cancerous?’

“Those were the things that were crossing my brain. You’re like, ‘Oh Lord, maybe this isn’t something you just go in and you’re fixed in three days.’ Your brain starts thinking the worst-case scenarios.”

Ulcerative colitis is commonly linked to an increased risk in colon cancer, according to the USNLM. Freeman was cancer free, but doctors were far from calling him healthy.

After doses of the steroid that worked for him before weren’t giving the immediate results necessary, Freeman’s body finally responded to a drug more commonly used to treat Crohn’s Disease, a related abdominal condition.

Former Cal Poly softball catcher Stephanie Correia was a sufferer of Crohn’s Disease and was open about how it affected her life.

Male athletes are often socialized to tough things out. Cal Poly football Hall of Famer and Super Bowl champion Mel Kaufman was found dead of acute pancreatitis in his home in 2009, leaving friends to wonder if a weekend trip to the emergency room could have saved his life.

The key to beating these internal diseases, said Freeman, who now has it under control with medication and a strict diet, is overcoming the private nature of the symptoms and seeking help.

“Don’t be embarrassed to talk about it and let people know because that really helps,” Freeman said. “If you’re hiding it, it can be hard to deal with the symptoms. There’s a lot more people out there that have it that we might not know of because they’re embarrassed to talk about it because you have to go to the restroom a lot or miss days at work because of it.

“In March, I kind of just said maybe this will go away, but it’s not going to go away, it’s just there. I’ll always have this, but I think I’m on the right track.”

Because of the illness, Freeman missed the graduation of Cal Poly’s decorated senior class. He missed the postseason awards banquet and the on-campus arrival of the Mustangs’ four incoming freshmen.

Cal Poly director of basketball operations Mitch Reaves made Freeman’s recruiting trips to help fill the void.

After more than a month of recovery, however, Freeman did travel to Las Vegas this past weekend for a two-day stay to see recruits and coaching colleagues, letting them know he was back on the job.

His big return came just four days after Freeman was released from the hospital. He was back in Mott Gym during a camp the Mustangs hosted for high school teams.

If only for a couple of hours that day, he was glad to get his mind back on basketball.

“I remember walking on campus and was a little nervous about what was going to happen,” Freeman said. “Will I have to go to the restroom? Will I get sick? I remember walking through the doors in this gym, and it felt like all the pain and worry went out the window.

“I was tired and the strength was not there, but it was really nice to get back in the gym.”

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