Murphy pitcher finally beats mystery illness

EVERETT — Last weekend, Evan Haugen pitched a shutout to help extend Archbishop Murphy’s baseball season. This weekend, the junior hopes to help the Wildcats advance even farther when they play in the Class 2A state regionals.

Had fate been a bit crueler to Haugen — and it has been plenty cruel — he could instead be recovering from or preparing for a third surgery right about now. But after more than a year of severe illness, after so many medicines, after struggles to diagnose exactly what was wrong, Haugen is healthy again, and thriving on the baseball field, the one place that served as his sanctuary when so many things were going wrong.

Across the state, countless athletes are participating in postseason play, chasing team and individual goals, but it’s difficult to imagine anyone more appreciative of being on a field this weekend than Haugen.

“It’s been amazing,” he said of his current season with the Wildcats. “… Where I am today, it’s an amazing feeling. Just knowing I’m pitching at full speed now, fully healthy, it’s amazing.”

Archbishop Murphy plays Fife in a first-round 2A state baseball game on Saturday at 10 a.m. at Cedarcrest H.S.

Most high school-age kids — heck, most young adults — take being healthy for granted, but not Haugen, not after so many twists and turns and trips to the emergency room, not after almost undergoing surgery to remove his colon.

To understand just how rough the past year and a half was for Haugen, consider that his mother, Cherie, has to pull an organizer out of her purse to recall the dates of the hospital visits, the different treatments and the ever-changing diagnosis of what was wrong with her son. When Haugen finally came to his parents and told them he had been experiencing blood in his stool — understandably that’s not a topic most teenagers are eager to bring up in conversation — the initial thought was that it might be Crohn’s disease, from which Evan’s father, James, suffers. An initial hospital visit seemed to confirm that diagnosis.

But Haugen was back in the hospital early in 2013 after treatments failed to work. Prednisone, a steroid treatment, provided short-term relief but also came with terrible side effects.

“It made me depressed, it made me gain weight, gave me a lot of acne,” Haugen said. “There was a lot of thinking, ‘This is just terrible.’ And every time something didn’t work, it was tough, because eventually I was going to run out of treatment options.”

The cycle of temporary improvement followed by worsening setbacks continued to the point that Haugen nearly needed a blood transfusion last summer, yet all the while, he felt at home on the mound, even if it sometimes meant taking a nap in the car after a summer-league game because he was too exhausted to drive home.

“He would tell us, ‘I go out on the field, and I don’t feel sick, I feel normal,’” Cherie Haugen said. “… That passion is what kept him focused on getting better, I truly believe that. Evan just loves the game.”

Haugen got through last season on the junior varsity, played summer ball despite weekly visits to Children’s Hospital for three-hour Remicade infusion treatments (basically chemotherapy-light). But as was the case so many times before, the improvements in his health didn’t last, and in the fall Haugen was back in the ER with a new, worse pain, this time for a 13-day stay at Children’s.

By then, colitis, not Crohn’s, was believed to be the culprit, and that was when the decision was made to remove Haugen’s colon, which in the short-term would mean a colostomy bag, and in the long term would mean three surgeries, the last of which would have occurred right around now. Surgery would mean a lot more time in the hospital, a long recovery, and perhaps worst of all, the loss of baseball for the season, but Haugen was ready to try anything.

“Emotionally it was really tough,” he said. “I was always setting goals, saying, ‘Hey, this next treatment is going to work.’”

Only for so long, the next treatment didn’t work. Surgery seemed to be the last hope.

“At that point, he said, ‘I don’t care, I just want to be healthy,’” James Haugen recalled.

But after so many bad breaks, a kid very much deserving of some good news got it in the form of a phone call on the day he was supposed to return to the hospital to prep for surgery. A blood test found the answer that had for so long escaped Haugen’s doctors. Somehow — nobody is sure how — Haugen had picked up a bacteria called Aeromonas, which is rare in this country (his doctors at Children’s had seen only one case of it before Haugen’s diagnosis). Aeromonas can cause many of the same symptoms as Crohn’s and colitis, and making matters worse, the immune suppressant drugs he had been taking were likely making the bacteria worse. Antibiotics quickly made a massive difference for Haugen.

“Within a week I was feeling a lot better, within a month I was feeling totally normal,” he said.

Haugen still might have colitis, that will be determined later, but he has enjoyed six consecutive months of good health, good grades and productive baseball.

“You wouldn’t even have known it the way he’s played this year,” Archbishop Murphy coach Stan Taloff said. “There have been no limitations, no reservations from him. He’s contributed in several ways to our success.”

Haugen is 4-1 as a starting pitcher with a 1.41 earned-run average, and he’s batting .303 primarily as a designated hitter. He likely won’t start Saturday after going seven innings last weekend, Taloff said, but will DH and be available in the bullpen.

Talking about Saturday’s regional game against Fife and reflecting back on last week’s shutout victory, Haugen paused briefly and smiled.

“And to think,” he said. “I could be getting surgery right now.”

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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