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Fighting on Two Fronts

Dec. 14, 1992
Dec. 14, 1992

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Dec. 14, 1992

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Point After

Fighting on Two Fronts

Goalie Mark Fitzpatrick hopes to conquer a rare blood disorder as well as the Islanders' foes

According to some medical Authorities, you're not supposed to be able to conquer eosinophilia myalgia syndrome (EMS). You're not supposed to be able to regain your dexterity, your reflexes, your strength. And you certainly shouldn't be able to strap on an NHL goalie's armor, then go out and stop shots fired at up to 110 mph from point-blank range.

This is an article from the Dec. 14, 1992 issue Original Layout

But then, you're not Mark Fitzpatrick. Two years after he was stricken with EMS, a potentially fatal blood disorder that caused his muscles to lose strength and his feet and hands to balloon, Fitzpatrick, 24, is taking a regular turn in the net for the New York Islanders.

The night before Halloween he played his best game since he contracted EMS, stopping 23 of 24 shots in a 4-1 win over the New Jersey Devils. Afterward, in the visitors' dressing room beneath the Meadowlands Arena, Fitzpatrick was stone-faced as he met with reporters and recounted for the zillionth time the abridged version of how he copes with a disease that has killed 36 people since it was first identified in 1989, has afflicted more than 1,500 others and has left another 3,000 with some symptoms.

"Same ol' same ol," he said with a wide grin after the journalists moved away. "It's like this after every game, no matter how good or how bad I play. I'm excited about winning, and I want to talk about the game, but all anyone wants to hear about is my health."

It is, Fitzpatrick will admit, a remarkable story. During training camp in the fall of 1990 he began to feel run-down and sore. While he was on a flight to Los Angeles for an exhibition game, his limbs became grossly distended. "I'd never seen anything like it," says Al Arbour, the Islanders' coach. "His arms and legs swelled up hard as a rock. It didn't feel like skin. It felt like the top of my desk. It was a scary, scary thing."

Fitzpatrick checked into Centinela Hospital in Los Angeles, a slap shot away from the Great Western Forum, and endured five days of poking and prodding by doctors who were unsure of what was happening to him. A surgeon removed a piece of his right forearm for a biopsy, a procedure that has left a livid, two-inch-long scar. "Those were the worst five days of my life," Fitzpatrick says. "Lying there in that hospital bed, knowing there was something drastically wrong with my body, not sleeping, just trying to understand what might have happened."

Finally the diagnosis was confirmed. Fitzpatrick joined the lengthening list of people with EMS, an illness that in most cases can be traced to toxic batches of L-tryptophan—a genetically engineered amino acid—that were manufactured by the Showa Denko company of Japan. Fitzpatrick claims the L-tryptophan was present in an over-the-counter dietary supplement he had been taking to build his stamina for the long season. While doctors have not yet definitely linked Fitzpatrick's case to the Showa Denko product, L-tryptophan has since been banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

"I was more frustrated than angry," says Fitzpatrick, who has filed a $108 million lawsuit against Showa Denko. "It's not even a natural illness. It's a man-made illness. A man-made mistake."

For three months Fitzpatrick holed up at his parents' home in Kitimat, on the remote northern coast of British Columbia, watching the Islanders play by means of a satellite dish and waiting for the swelling to subside. "I didn't know if I was ever going to be able to play again," he says. "The-doctors just told me to go home and rest, to let time take its course. It was really depressing. Gradually, I started to improve."

By December, Fitzpatrick was going stir-crazy in Kitimat, so he treated himself to a 10-day Caribbean cruise that served as rehabilitation for his body and his spirits. A month later, in January 1991, he went back to work. After 12 games in the minors, he made a triumphant return to Long Island, beating the Boston Bruins 5-3 in the Islanders' final home game of the season.

He decided he was feeling well enough to stop taking prednisone, the drug that had reduced the swelling, but one that can have harmful side effects such as cataracts and softening of the bones. Then, on the eve of training camp that fall, he had a relapse. "It was like someone punctured me with a needle and sucked all the energy right out of my body," he says. "That's how it feels. Your major muscles swell up, your whole body feels stiff and sore and tired. You have virtually no range of motion. Nobody has any use for a goaltender who can't move."

Another two months of rest and rehabilitation were followed by another stint in the minors. By February, when the team's starter, Glen Healy, went down with an injury, Fitzpatrick was ready to step in. He started 12 of the Islanders' last 14 games, finishing the '91-92 season with an 11-13-5 record and a 3.20 goals-against average. The Professional Hockey Writers' Association awarded him the Bill Masterton Trophy for perseverance and dedication to the sport.

Fitzpatrick was flattered by the honor, but he seemed most pleased by the league's decision to include him on this season's All-Star ballot. He has had his fill of expressions of sympathy, however well intended. "People are always asking me 'How do you feel?' " he says. "Every single day, for the last three years. Wherever I go. At the rink, at the mall, at home, it's always 'How do you feel?' I'm looking forward to the day people just ask me 'How's it going?' Anything but 'How do you feel?' "

So, Mark, how do you feel? "Fine," he says. "I have my good weeks, my bad weeks and my so-so weeks."

According to his doctor, Fitzpatrick is way ahead of the curve. "I've seen that this can be a horrible disease, most disabling," says Dr. Lee Kaufman, director of clinical rheumatology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, who has treated more than 60 EMS patients. "For the amount of disease he had in his system, Mark is making an amazing recovery. He'll probably continue to have some problem with it, but I'm not so pessimistic to say that he'll never be back to what he was. He has so much motivation."

Fitzpatrick now takes weekly doses of prednisone and methotrexate, a drug that is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. He undergoes blood tests regularly. To build his muscle mass, he lifts weights. To keep his muscles as limber as possible, he has a stretching routine that he follows before practices and games. Afterward he slips into a body-numbing ice bath for 20 minutes, climbing out just before he turns into a 6' 2", 190-pound block of ice.

The Islanders admire his effort, though they know there's no guarantee that Fitzpatrick will ever reach his enormous potential. "He had this bounce, this fluidity that you don't often find in a big man," says former general manager Bill Torrey, who acquired Fitzpatrick and two other players from the Los Angeles Kings in February '89 for goalie Kelly Hrudey. "That's what I always loved about him, and that's what's been affected. At times he has it. At other times he doesn't. But Fitzie is still young. If he can lick this, he's going to have a great career. A talent like this doesn't come along very often."

"The talent is still there," says Billy Smith, the former Islander goalie who now serves as the team's goaltending instructor. "I don't think he's lost all that much. It's just a matter of how he feels when he comes out to play. When Mark feels good, he looks as good or better than he ever has. On the days he's stiff, he looks like an average goaltender."

Average isn't good enough for Fitzpatrick, who thought he was on the verge of greatness three years ago. "I was just starting to bloom," he says. "I was on the road to becoming one of the top young goaltenders in the league. Then I got hit by the illness, and the road's a lot harder now."

On his best days Fitzpatrick says he might feel 90% as sharp as he did before he contracted EMS. On his worst, maybe 70%. Or less. "I'll use whatever I have to the best of my ability," he says. "Instead of relying on my hand-eye coordination, now I try and come out and challenge the shooter a little more. I'll try and block off more of an angle so I'm not forced to use my reflexes as much.

"Before, I would hang back in the net and know that I was quick enough to make the save. Now I try to adjust around the illness, because some things aren't the same as they once were."

When he began his comeback, appreciative Islander fans would greet Fitzpatrick with cheers every time he skated onto the ice and go easy on him when he didn't play well. Now when he blows a shot, he almost relishes the boos. "If I make a mistake oul there, I don't expect people to feel sorry for me," he says. "I expect a lot from myself, and I expect the fans to expect a lot from me as well."

Medical authorities began monitoring EMS only shortly before Fitzpatrick's condition was diagnosed, so there's no track record to predict the long-term effects of the disease. The most severe cases have resulted in death; other patients have suffered skin disorders, neuromuscular problems, fatigue and memory impairment.

Dr. Kaufman says Fitzpatrick's condition has never been life-threatening, and it's unlikely that any recurrence will be worse than what he has been through already. A few people appear to have recovered completely. But Fitzpatrick still has symptoms; at times his skin takes on an odd sheen. Touch his forearm, and you can feel hard pockets of swollen tissue.

In late October, Fitzpatrick was invited to speak before an international gathering of doctors who are trying to find new methods to treat EMS and similar diseases, such as toxic oil syndrome, an ailment that killed more than 600 people in Spain in 1981 after they had ingested tainted cooking oil. "In some ways Fitzie is like a guinea pig," says Islander trainer Ed Tyburski. "I mean, we know a lot less about this than AIDS and cancer."

"It's made me a lot stronger, I guess," Fitzpatrick says. "A stronger-willed person. Before I got the illness, I always thought that I could eat what I want and drink what I want, and it wouldn't affect me—I'd just work it off at practice. I used to really enjoy the things that were going on off the ice. To call me a partier might be a little bit strong, a little, but I did like to go out and have a good time after the games. Now I'm forced to take better care of myself. I can't drink alcohol, and I know it's vital that I get a lot of rest."

That's because the symptoms can sometimes be brought on by stress and fatigue. "Of course, that's exactly what this game is all about," he says. "Lots of pressure, so there's stress, and there's obviously a lot of exertion." Says defenseman Gary Nylund, Fitzpatrick's friend and teammate, "It's a catch-22. Just by playing, he's doing the exact opposite of what might help him beat the thing once and for all. You can't take a day off here. It's a tough sport, and every year it's getting tougher. The players coming in arc better, faster, stronger."

Fitzpatrick tries to compensate for the stress by living quietly in a rented house in Westbury, a village not far from Nassau Coliseum but light-years away from the buzz of Manhattan. And he maintains deep roots—not to mention his beloved 26-fool deepwater fishing boat—back in Kitimat. "I don't take anything for granted anymore," he says. "I appreciate waking up in the morning and being able to go for a walk or play golf or drive my car to practice. As bad as this has been, there are a lot of people in this world who don't get a second chance to do what they love."

The finest hockey player ever to come out of Kitimat, Fitzpatrick helped win the Memorial Cup—Canada's national junior championship—two years in a row with a team from Medicine Hat, Alberta. Drafted in the second round in 1987, he joined the Kings in '88. He was 19.

"Here's the best thing that ever happened to me," he says, beaming. "I'd been living in a hotel in L.A., and one day Wayne Gretzky comes up to me and says, 'Hey, kid, bring your bags to the rink tonight. You're coming to live with me.'

"I couldn't believe it. I was in awe the whole time. He and his wife were completely first-class. One day he says, 'Hey, kid, if you want to take the car to take a girl on a date, the keys are hanging on the fridge.' The keys to his $180,000 Bentley! I was too scared. I borrowed his wife's Jeep instead."

He's no kid anymore. At times there have been rumblings of doubt in the dressing room, especially after the Islanders allowed backup goalie Jeff Hackett to go to the San Jose Sharks in the 1991 expansion draft, and Fitzpatrick subsequently relapsed. But his teammates now seem to view his continuing comeback with quiet approval. "A lot of people don't realize how acutely sick he was," says Pat Flatley, the Islanders' captain. "He has to fight every day. It's inspiring."

"Bumps and bruises go away in a few days," says Nylund. "Broken bones mend. Ligaments can be repaired. This is different. Fitzie has to live the rest of his life with this disease. It takes a lot of strength for him to play."

After a rough training camp, during which he suffered occasional flare-ups of pain and swelling, Fitzpatrick began this season as Healy's backup. He lost his first two starts, then beat the Hartford Whalers 4-2, making just 16 saves. "Before the illness, I sometimes faced 16 shots in a period," he says. "I see what my teammates are doing. I see the forwards taking hard checks to get the puck out of our zone. I see the defensemen going down to block shots that they don't necessarily have to block. It's encouraging to me that they care as much as they do."

Against the Devils, Fitzpatrick didn't really need the extra protection or the postgame ice bath. "Tonight," he said with satisfaction, "I think I'll have a hot one for a change."

PHOTOTOBEY SANFORDAfter practices and games, Tyburski gives Fitzpatrick ice in another, less appealing, form.PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOFitzpatrick, relying less on his reflexes, tends to come out of the net to challenge shooters.PHOTOTOBEY SANFORDFitzpatrick makes sure that he gets plenty of R and R between games.