Happy to be alive


Nick Eason's words hung in the air, and a chill ran through me. This was not an exaggeration, an attempt at sympathy, a quest for attention. What he said came across as matter-of-fact, honest. It was how he felt. It is what he feared.

"If I was going to die, I didn't want to die alone."

It all started innocently enough, sometime in mid-March, with Eason feeling some pain in his right side, but with no other symptoms accompanying it, he basically ignored it.

"I deal with pain every day as a football player," said Eason. "I feel pain all the time. I thought maybe I'm out of shape, maybe I'm just cramping. It was on and off for a while."

Eason took part in team's offseason program – those initial running/lifting sessions, then minicamp, then the OTAs. The pain was with him, but it never got to the point where a man entering his eighth NFL season would take particular notice.

He went home for the Memorial Day weekend, celebrated his 30th birthday with family and friends. That's when he sensed something was wrong, possibly really wrong. It wasn't the pain anymore, but his appetite was gone. A man who weighs more than 300 pounds wasn't interested in eating?

"I noticed on that Friday that I didn't eat anything at all," recalled Eason. "I didn't have an appetite. I wasn't sick. It was just strange I just didn't have an appetite. I didn't want to eat Saturday or Sunday either. That was my red alert."

When Eason returned to Pittsburgh the following Monday, the pain got significantly worse, and then he got Steelers head athletic trainer John Norwig involved. An appointment with an internist was scheduled for the next day, but by the time Eason returned to his Pittsburgh apartment, the pain had become unbearable.

Former teammate Jason Chery drove him to Presbyterian Hospital where he was given an IV and antibiotics. He had an immediate allergic reaction, which then had to be treated first. His appendix was the source of the pain, and so Eason was loaded into an ambulance and transferred to Magee Hospital for the emergency appendectomy. That's normally a routine procedure, but Eason's problems were just beginning.

"When I woke up they told me it was bad," said Eason. "My appendix was seeping the bacteria into my system. They removed the appendix and part of the small intestine. I felt so sick when I came out of surgery. I knew I wasn't going home fast. I just kept vomiting."

The reason for the vomiting was because Eason's bowels became inflamed and were backed up. He had two choices. Well, really just one choice, and one consequence if he refused. That's when a three-foot tube was inserted through his nose and into his stomach. His body's waste had to be cleared.

"That was horrible having to do that," said Eason, "but if I didn't I could become septic and die."

Oh, and in the meantime, one of the surgical incisions became infected at the same time.

"They had to dig it back out," said Eason. "I had a hole in my stomach. It was so painful. I was screaming and hollering. They had to clean it twice a day. It was so painful."

Eason says now there were times back then when he thought, "This is it. I'm going to die." He was in constant pain, had no energy, couldn't eat. His blood pressure was high, and he was running a fever.

"At one point I didn't think I was going to make it out of the hospital," said Eason, who lost 29 pounds and was down to 290. "I was so weak – imagine losing all of that muscle. I couldn't walk on my own. I had to get assistance getting out of bed, to do any normal thing. I was pretty scared. I called my family and told them to come because things were going downhill. I didn't think I was going to make it."

His mom, Iris Wilcox, traveled to Pittsburgh despite her own battle with breast cancer. His wife, Regina, was by his side. Coach Mike Tomlin visited to lend support as well.

"My Mom came up. I thought she was going to cry when she walked in the room because I was so sick and weak,' said Eason. "She was strong. She didn't shed a tear, at least not in front of me. It helped a lot. You need somebody there for you when you are sick. You don't want to be alone.

"If I was going to die, I didn't want to die alone."

Eason finally turned the corner and began the long journey back to the professional football player he had been. He could not participate in the final OTAs in mid-June, he passed the conditioning test that kicks off training camp and did not miss a practice during the three weeks there.

"The first couple of weeks of training camp were really rough on me," said Eason, now back to 300 pounds. "I didn't have energy or my strength. It's been tough. But it's a blessing to be out here.

"I'm just happy to be alive. When guys complain about the heat, I tell them it beats being in a hospital bed. I don't have any complaints at all. This has allowed me to appreciate life more. I don't take anything for granted.

"What if I would have died? This would be a memorial story about me. That could've easily happened."

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This story originally appeared in Steelers Digest. To subscribe to Steelers Digest call 1-800-334-4005 or click on the Steelers Digest link.

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