Shortly after two-a-day practices started in August 2012, Westerhaus began suffering from diarrhea and found blood in his stool. Doctors quickly diagnosed the problem, but the medication couldn’t stifle it.
“Ulcerative colitis is not a curable disease,” said Dr. Mary Kwaan, a University of Minnesota surgeon. “So the treatment is all about controlling the symptoms, making it a livable disease.”
According to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America, up to 700,000 Americans suffer from ulcerative colitis, which specifically affects the large intestine.
Former Chargers kicker Rolf Benirschke nearly died from the disease in 1979, early in his career, but came back to kick after having his large intestine removed. Westerhaus said he drew inspiration talking to Benirschke and reading his book, “Alive and Kicking.”
“There were times when it was honestly living hell,” Westerhaus said. “I would get 15 minutes of sleep here and there through the night. You’re constantly going to the bathroom. I feel like I have a high pain tolerance, but these [pain episodes] lasted six hours.”
Coach Kill reaches out
Desperate to find a remedy, Westerhaus volunteered for research studies at the university. He tried a gluten-free diet. In case his symptoms were stress-related, he tried acupuncture, massage therapy and yoga.
He still had hope of making a comeback in January 2013, when things took a serious turn for the worse. An infection formed, and his doctors feared his colon could rupture, which would threaten his life.
Westerhaus was at the Mayo Clinic that winter, with his weight down to about 180 pounds, when Gophers coach Jerry Kill and his wife, Rebecca, made a surprise visit to his hospital room. Westerhaus said it’s as if Kill has “a sixth sense” about when to reach out to players in need.
“His dad and I would run out of words, and that’s when Coach Kill would call,” Sue Westerhaus said. “That meant so much to Peter, just to know he hadn’t been dumped from the team.”
Sue Westerhaus had worked as a nurse for seven years treating cancer patients, so she was used to seeing suffering.
“But to watch your child suffer through this, you feel so helpless,” she said. “He has been so incredibly brave. His strength, the way he handles things with such grace, inspired us as a family.”
In January, with Westerhaus barely weighing 150 pounds, his surgeon said the time had come to remove his large intestine.
“I was ready at that point,” Westerhaus said. “I’d given it a good fight.”
Westerhaus said he felt so lousy heading into surgery that it didn’t take long to feel remarkably better. The doctors have encouraged him to put on weight heading into the next two surgeries, which could come this summer.
“I’ve been eating and eating and eating,” he said. “Food is fun again. I think I gained 11 pounds in a week and a half. But the surgeon was happy about that. He said, ‘You were starving yourself. Your body was craving these nutrients.’ ”
Westerhaus has moved back home to Chanhassen, but he is working toward a degree in finance. He carried a 3.95 grade-point average through high school and could graduate as soon as December 2015.