Ike Ditzenberger home after near-fatal illness

SNOHOMISH — In a young life filled with adversity and one extraordinary moment of triumph, Ike Ditzenberger has inspired us by his determination to succeed and his joy at doing his best.

And now by his courage and perseverance, he inspires us once again.

Ditzenberger, a 19-year-old with Down syndrome whose touchdown in a Snohomish High School football game two years ago became an online video sensation, returned home Friday after a near-fatal bout with pneumonia. He was hospitalized for 19 days, and for one perilous week his life was very much in the balance as doctors at the UW Medical Center worked to stave off the deadly infection.

“There’s a bad pneumonia going around, and it just hit Ike hard,” said his mother, Kay Ditzenberger.

On Wednesday, doctors finally moved him out of the hospital’s intensive care unit. And on Friday he was discharged.

The first stop was a nearby McDonald’s where Ike ordered a sausage burrito and milk for breakfast. And then it was on to the high school, where teammates, coaches and other friends came by the car to welcome him back to Snohomish.

One of the first to stop by was a girl named Cecelia. Seeing her, Ike stepped from the car and held out his arms for a hug.

Other kids came by in a steady procession, among them many of Ike’s football and wrestling teammates. The greeters included Snohomish wrestling coach Rob Zabel and football coach Mark Perry.

“He’s just a unique individual that’s a fun kid to have around,” Perry said. “Yeah, he has special needs, but he’s still a human being that isn’t any different than the rest of us.”

After that it was back home for an afternoon of hanging out with friends. Steve Ditzenberger, Ike’s dad, delivered snacks of chips and pop, and the boys spent a few hours playing Xbox 360.

It was, Kay Ditzenberger said, the remarkable culmination to almost three heart-wrenching weeks.

It began on Oct. 19, a Friday, when Kay Ditzenberger came down with pneumonia. Her case was mild, but when Ike was stricken two days later, it quickly became more serious. By Monday morning, she said, “he had blue lips and blue fingers. … He was suffocating.”

A trip to the family doctor soon turned into a hastened drive to Seattle Children’s Hospital, which then became an ambulance ride to the nearby UW Medical Center because of an ICU bed shortage at Children’s.

The next few days were a journey of hope and faith. Kay and Steve were joined by older sons Josh, 24, and Jake, 21, “and the whole family just hovered around his bedside the whole week,” Kay Ditzenberger said. “Nobody wanted to leave the room. He could’ve died at any moment, and we were afraid if we walked out, we’d never see him again.

“We were all like, ‘This can’t happen. We can’t do without him. We just can’t.’ And so we all started praying.”

“As parents, you don’t want to see your kids suffer,” Steve Ditzenberger said. “But with faith … you put trust in the doctors. That’s all you can do.”

It took a week, but Ike’s lung X-rays finally began to show improvement. The antibiotics he was receiving were starting to beat back the infection, and by early this week “he was sitting up in bed and joking with the nurses,” his mother said. “It was amazing.”

Ike’s pneumonia had nothing to do with his disability, she went on. It was “just bad luck. It hit me and then Ike, and then his dad got it, too. But it hit Ike really hard.”

In recent days, friends from the high school visited the hospital. Among them was Perry, whose son, Tanner, is one of Ike’s closest friends.

“Something was born in Ike at Snohomish High School that we didn’t know existed (before),” Kay Ditzenberger said. “It was a love for those football players and for his coach. So when coach came to his bedside with Tanner, Ike opened his eyes and just lit up.”

Other players showed up. They are, she said, “the people who make him feel like he’s one of them. They’re his extended family and they were the best medicine. … There are super-kind hearts in those boys, and we’re just very thankful for that.”

Thankful, too, are Kay and Steve Ditzenberger for their son’s future. A future that was, just two weeks ago, very uncertain.

“Ike has so many dreams,” she said. “He wants to wrestle and to be in the school play and to go to prom and to go to college. Those are very strong desires for him, and I want to help him meet those goals. And now he’ll get that chance.

“We got him back and that’s the main thing. Because I could not imagine facing the future without him.”

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