Mike Sherels doesn’t remember five days last month. Five days when his life changed. Five days spent in ICU, on a ventilator, near death.
The former Gophers football captain and current assistant coach underwent four surgeries in one week as doctors discovered that his intestines were ravaged.
“They opened me up and everything was dead,” he said.
He didn’t learn the seriousness of his condition until after he woke up in his university hospital bed. His wife, Emily, showed him a picture of him sedated, holding his daughter’s hand while she looked at her favorite book, Dumbo.
Emily told 3-year-old Valerie that the ventilator was Dad’s superhero mask.
“Seeing that picture was like, I almost died,” Mike said, his voice trembling. “I didn’t know.”
Details of his illness were kept private by his family and the university. At home and recovering this week, Sherels offered to share his ordeal so that people can understand what he went through and the long road ahead.
Sherels, already a football lifer in Minnesota, is 31. Emily is 30. They have two kids, a girl and boy, ages 3½ and 18 months.
And Emily is pregnant again. They knew that before Sherels got sick. Her husband was on a ventilator, fighting for his life, when Emily learned something else.
They’re having twins.
• • •
Sherels’ medical problems began in late July, but they reached a life-threatening stage two weeks later when he was rushed to University of Minnesota Medical Center for emergency surgery.
He felt shooting pain in his abdomen. He was vomiting and his skin looked yellow. He told Emily that he felt like he had a hole in his stomach.
Turns out, he did.
Emily’s heart sank as his surgeon asked family members to join him in the consultation room post-surgery. She had watched other surgeons come out and talk to families in the main waiting area, without the need for privacy.
Her husband was very sick, the doctor kept saying, his odds of survival slim.
The surgeon removed all but 140 centimeters, about 4½ feet, of Sherels’ small intestine. The average length of a small intestine in a man is about 23 feet.
His large intestine was damaged beyond repair, too. The surgeon removed the right side of his colon and part of his transverse colon.
A day later, those remaining 140 centimeters were cut out. None of his small bowel could be saved.
Even if he survived, doctors told Emily, he would not be able to eat normally again. One surgeon said she didn’t think he would ever work again. They said “quality of life” should be considered, the trauma to his body so severe, as his family weighed further surgery.
The lead surgeon told Emily, “I never, ever in my career wanted to be presented with this case.”
• • •
Morning sickness hit Emily hard as she held it together for her family. Before each surgery, she played their wedding song — Adele’s “Make You Feel My Love” — held her husband’s hand and reminded him that he had a lot to fight for.
“You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have,” Emily said, reciting a favorite saying.
That strength has ushered them to their new reality.
Sherels can’t eat. He receives nutrients in a formula that’s pumped through a line inserted into his right arm. He’s not supposed to drink either, though he occasionally sips water or Gatorade.
A tube in his stomach removes fluids and bile through ostomy bags worn on his left leg. The organs that survived — his stomach, duodenum and left side of his colon — are no longer connected.
He wears a pad around his stomach to protect a thick, 12-inch incision down the middle of his abdomen. He’s lost 50 pounds.
Sherels said this week he has good days and frustrating days. He cries a lot more now, sometimes when he’s just having a regular conversation.
“I certainly have a new appreciation for being alive,” he said.
• • •
Sherels was a tough football player. A middle linebacker, a thumper.
He joined the Gophers as a walk-on and earned a scholarship. He is the only walk-on in program history to be named team captain twice. He won team awards for courage, love of football and his devotion to the university.
Sherels admits he’s stubborn. Bullheaded, friends tease. His fierce determination allowed his family to remain positive as his health crumbled.
Emily filled out disability paperwork one day and asked about a timetable for when he might return to coaching. The surgeon answered that she didn’t think her husband would work again.
“You don’t know Mike Sherels,” Emily replied.
Emily told the primary surgeon he should Google her husband and read his history. “You’ll understand why we stayed so positive through all of this,” she told him. “He’s going to prove everybody wrong.”
Doctors advised the family that Sherels might need four to six months of hospitalization, followed by extensive rehab. He went home 10 days after his first surgery, five days after his last one.
Several nurses watched with surprise as Sherels was discharged directly from ICU. They’d never seen that.
“It’s one more thing that I get to prove people wrong on,” he said.
• • •
Emily keeps a spiral notebook with a timeline of four weeks’ worth of events that led them here. Everything started July 24 when Sherels noticed blood in his stool. He went through a series of tests and scans that ruled out common gastrointestinal disorders but failed to locate the source of his bleeding. His blood loss caused his hemoglobin level to drop, requiring a series of transfusions.
Growing concerned, Sherels consulted with Gophers team doctors and was admitted to the university hospital. Doctors repeated previous tests as Sherels continued to lose blood.
One night, he got up at 4 a.m. to use the bathroom and passed out. His hemoglobin had dropped to a very low level.
When he regained consciousness, doctors were surrounding him in bed and were preparing defibrillation.
An angiogram finally discovered the source of bleeding in an area at the entrance of his large intestine. Doctors found and repaired an abnormal cluster of blood vessels, a condition known as angiodysplasia.
He had stabilized enough to return home a week after his procedure. That night, he didn’t sleep at all. He felt intense pain in his stomach.
At 7 a.m., he asked Emily to drive him back to the university hospital. They made it only a few miles before deciding to stop at Fairview Ridges in Burnsville because he was in dire condition.
Morphine had no effect. He was vomiting, sweating profusely and his abdomen was becoming firm. A CT scan discovered gastrointestinal perforation.
Along the way, Sherels also had an allergic reaction to a medication, causing blood clots to form in his intestines.
Sherels remembers riding in an ambulance to the university. His next recollection came five days later when he awoke and found nurses pinning his arms down as he tried to remove his ventilator himself.
• • •
Adam Clark, the Gophers director of football operations, met Emily at the emergency room doors. She knew their family would not have to deal with this crisis alone.
One day between surgeries, Emily’s sister looked out the window in Mike’s room. She called Emily over.
All the Gophers linebackers were walking into the hospital together. They brought letters they wrote to their coach. They asked Emily to read them to him at night.
Emily hugged them and cried. They sat down in the family waiting room and she spoke honestly about her husband’s condition.
She told them Mike had worked hard to create a family atmosphere in the linebacker meeting room, and this is what families do in difficult times.
“You’re not just players to us,” she told them. “You can talk about being a family, but right now we’re all feeling it.”
At that same moment, Emily’s parents and Mike’s stepfather sat in the hospital chapel waiting for mass. The entire Gophers coaching staff, led by head coach Tracy Claeys, walked in and stood in the back.
Close to 100 visitors came to the hospital that day.
Gophers coaches made daily visits. They brought blankets and cots because Emily refused to leave the hospital. They cooked food, did her laundry, lifted her spirits with kindness.
Back on campus, the team adopted a new rallying cry and hashtag — #SherelsStrong.
Sherels amazed doctors when he would open his eyes or gesture to visitors while sedated on a ventilator. He would make the “I love you” symbol in sign language when he heard Emily’s voice.
At the end of the first week, doctors convinced Emily, who had not been home for more than a night in three weeks, to finally leave the hospital and rest. They knew she was pregnant.
That afternoon, her doctor cleared time for her to have an ultrasound.
“Overwhelming,” she said.
• • •
The office in Sherels’ home now doubles as a medical space and source of inspiration. Here, every night after their kids are put to bed, Emily prepares a four-liter bag of formula that will provide Mike nourishment over 12 hours.
This situation has made them feel like experts in health care. “I feel like I would get an A-plus in anatomy where before I would get a D,” Mike said, smiling.
He hopes to eat food again someday. Sherels is receiving care at Mayo Clinic in his hometown of Rochester, and he hopes doctors can someday reconnect his stomach to his large intestine. The prospect of advances in intestinal surgery and transplantation “gives me hope,” he said.
Sherels also finds hope when he thinks about returning to the sideline. One of his first questions after becoming lucid was, When can I coach again?
On the day he was discharged, Mike asked Emily to bring him by practice. Players erupted with joy.
“My players mean so much to me,” he said. “It’s the best therapy that I could ever have.”
He remains on paid leave, but he refuses to sit idle. Tears fill his eyes as he talks about his linebackers.
“If I’m just left to sit here, I’ll go insane,” he said. “I don’t want to think about how I could have died. I want to go and be there for my players.”
He started by spending two hours at the football facility each day two weeks ago. Then four hours, then six.
He was at the facility 33 hours last week, still technically a visitor.
“It seems like football coaches heal a hell of a lot faster when they hang around football players,” Claeys said. “He’s more than welcome anytime.”
Sherels stood on the field for warmups before the season opener, mostly observing and offering encouragement. He watched the game from the coaches’ booth in the press box.
He was exhausted afterward. Defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel texted Emily from the locker room and ordered her to keep Sherels home the next day.
Sherels understands his limitations. He’s shared numerous conversations with former coach Jerry Kill about setting priorities. Don’t rush back, Kill said, put health first.
Sherels said he won’t return until he can handle all the demands, just like every other coach on staff.
“I have too much respect for them to come back in anything less than full capacity,” he said. “When that day comes, and it will come, I’ll be right back on the sidelines where I belong.”
At home, he finds support in the same room that contains his medical equipment. One table holds the letters from his linebackers, walls are adorned with well-wishes sent to him in the hospital and cards sit on another table. Kansas State coach Bill Snyder wrote him a note. He’s also received e-mails from people he’s never met.
“I had no idea that kind of love is out there,” he said. “That part makes me feel very blessed.”
Two shirts hang from a bookshelf, both given to him by his younger brother, Marcus, the Vikings punt returner.
One is Marcus’ jersey worn during a preseason game at Seattle while his brother was in the hospital. He returned an interception for a touchdown late in the game.
The other shirt has become a favorite. It has Gophers colors with five simple words written across the front.
Never Tell Me The Odds.