Charcandrick West pushes through the debilitating disease of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis to become an NFL star running back for the Kansas City Chiefs.
The pain was excruciating. And it made no sense.
Just the night before, Charcandrick West had scored three touchdowns for the Lumberjacks, his Springhill High School football team. Barely past the start of his freshman year, he was already a standout on the varsity team. He was 14 years old and in peak shape.
The following morning, Charcandrick’s joints were on fire, and his muscles clenched tight. He could barely move out of the fetal position.
“He woke up that morning hollering for his mom,” said his stepfather, Toccara Ford. “He had shooting pain and then some welts broke out on him, like somebody had whipped him…. He would scream like somebody was killing him whenever you’d touch him.”
Ford and Charcandrick’s mother, Demetrice West, rushed their son to Springhill Medical Center, the main hospital in their small northern Louisiana town. Doctors examined Charcandrick, diagnosed him with a virus, and sent the family home.
More tests, no answers
When Charcandrick’s condition didn’t improve, the family drove 45 minutes south to a hospital in Minden, La. There, doctors tested him for a whole range of viruses that can cause joint pain – including West Nile, hepatitis, and even HIV. “Finally the pediatrician told us, ‘I’m going to be honest with you guys. I really have never seen this before,’” Toccara recalls. The doctor sent them to a children’s hospital in Shreveport.
In Shreveport, doctors still couldn’t confirm a diagnosis, so the family set out again, this time to Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock. There were more rounds of tests – x-rays, MRIs, and a painful bone marrow biopsy.
Still, there were no clear answers. The family returned to Shreveport.
An answer – and a crushing blow
It was only after bouncing from hospital to hospital and undergoing test after test, that Charcandrick finally got a diagnosis – juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Finally, he had an answer to his sore, stiff joints.
The guessing game was over, but the family’s ordeal was just beginning. Given the severity of Charcandrick’s arthritis, doctors told him that it was unlikely he would ever play football again.
“Just from the look on his face you could tell he was crushed,” Toccara says.
“Football was his life,” Demetrice adds.
Never give up
Charcandrick’s doctors put him on the drug anakinra (Kineret) to suppress the overactive immune system attack that was damaging his joints. He had to give himself painful injections in the arm, thigh, hip, or stomach every day.
“I would say that was the hardest part of dealing with the whole situation, knowing when I went to bed at night I had to wake up in the morning to give myself a shot before I go to school, just to have a normal day,” Charcandrick says.
Through the darkest moments of his disease, his mother was his rock. “I was by his side all the time, just encouraging him,” she says.
In the hospital when Charcandrick refused to get out of bed, “I would make him get up, get showered, move into the game room, and do everything the other children would do,” she says. “I’ll never forget one day when one of the nurses came in and said, ‘Mom, you’re a strong mom, but you’re a mean mom.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not mean. I just refuse to let my child lay here and give up on life.’”
Charcandrick’s treatment wasn’t easy, but the results were dramatic. “When he started taking that [drug], the rash and the fever and all that just kind of went away immediately,” Toccara says. Within a few months, the pain and stiffness were virtually gone.
By the end of the year, Charcandrick was able to start weaning off his medicine and could rejoin his football team at practices. But the rheumatoid arthritis had left his body weak and wasted. He’d lost more than 60 pounds. If he wanted to play football again, he’d have to regain weight – and strength. He began lifting weights at home and running.
Charcandrick took it slow at first. Gradually, as he got stronger, he started pushing himself harder and harder. “After practice he would come home, and still I would have to throw the football with him for an hour or two after practicing hard,” Toccara says. “This is what it takes, I guess. And it paid off.”
Once back in shape, Charcandrick was able to play the last seven games of his freshman football season. Over the next couple of years, he continued to get stronger. By the time he turned 17, his doctors told him that his rheumatoid arthritis had gone into full remission.
In his senior year of high school, Charcandrick was fielding offers from Division I schools. He ended up at Abilene Christian University, where he ultimately scored 30 touchdowns. In 2014, he signed on as a running back with the Kansas City Chiefs. After being told he’d likely never play football again, he’d earned a spot in the NFL.
Now 26, Charcandrick is starting his fourth season with the Chiefs. His rheumatoid arthritis never returned, but his mother has stayed vigilant. “Any time he feels like he’s tired… I always ask him, ‘Do you feel bad?’ And he’s like, ‘No ma’am.’”
Demetrice and Toccara say they are “the proudest parents in the world” at what their son has accomplished.
Charcandrick attributes much of his success to his mother’s refusal to give up on him. “He always says, ‘Mama, if it wasn’t for you, I don’t know where I would be today,’” Demetrice says. “He shows his appreciation every single day. Every moment.”
UPDATE: Thomas Pressly, MD, the doctor who diagnosed West with juvenile arthritis at Shriners Hospital for Children in Shreveport, La., has written Chiefs owner Clark Hunt, advocating the team nominate West for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award. You can read his letter here.
October 26, 2017
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA