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For Tyler Yates, an indomitable Division III goalkeeper, success is measured in years--the 13 by which he has exceeded the death sentence of a medical diagnosis.
Yates's dorm room at the University of Redlands, in Redlands, Calif., looks like a set from a sequel to Old School. The floor is a riot of wayward clothes. There is a stash of junk food in the corner composed of orange cream soda, Cheez-Its and chocolate-covered Kudos. A stack of DVDs on Yates's desk includes such neoclassics as Dodgeball and Freddy Got Fingered. The only alien element in this postadolescent tableau is the tall, stainless steel IV pole peeking out of the closet.
Every 21 days the pole is rolled out to help keep Yates alive, as he takes an infusion of human antibodies. Yates has a rare bone disease, B-cell humoral immunodeficiency. His B-lymphocytes, white blood cells that should produce antibodies to fight the germs and bacteria that cause infections, are defective. Yates is so vulnerable to infection that even with a regular infusion of antibodies he can be ravaged by illness. Common colds often lead to abscesses in his respiratory tract. Simple sinus infections have required him to be hospitalized so the bacteria can be scraped out. "A mosquito bite could kill Tyler, because of West Nile," says his mother, Suzie, who has raised him on her own since he was 20 months old. "One tick bite could kill him, because of Lyme disease. Public restrooms are a nightmare, because of all the germs. So is a soccer field, because of the bacteria in the soil."
On a recent morning Tyler, a sophomore, glided across the lovely Redlands campus in flip-flops, sagging jeans and a Hurley T-shirt. He looked every bit the college kid, but subtle gestures betrayed his need to avoid bacteria. En route to class he didn't touch the railing of a steep staircase, and he waited for another student to open the door to the classroom. Once inside he jackknifed into his chair without putting his hands on the desktop. Of course, there are times to throw caution to the wind; in the cafeteria he was happy to accept a hug from a fetching coed.
"Tyler's like the boy in the bubble," says Redlands soccer coach Rob Becerra, "except that he's chosen to step out and experience the world despite the risks."
The infusion of antibodies helps make this possible. On Oct. 15 Yates was due for another IV. At 2 a.m. Suzie hopped in her downtrodden Chevy Cavalier and began the 10-hour drive from her home in Chico, Calif., to Redlands, which is 60 miles east of Los Angeles. She arrived at halftime of Redlands' 1-0 soccer win over Pomona-Pitzer. (The Bulldogs finished the regular season 16-2-2 and made the D-III playoffs for the fifth straight season.) As backup goalie Yates didn't see any action against Pomona-Pitzer, which was just as well because he would need all of his strength for the infusion back in his dorm room.
The antibodies are so viscous that it took a half hour for the first 10 milliliters to be absorbed by Yates's veins. Extracted from 5,200 pints of human blood, the 600-milliliter bag of antibodies costs $15,263.50, payable every three weeks. It's no wonder that despite working two and sometimes three jobs, and even with medical insurance, Suzie has twice declared bankruptcy.
As the IV released drop after drop, Yates spent much of the next eight hours studying for a big biology exam a couple of days away. Suzie did her son's laundry and methodically bleached every flat surface in the dorm room. It was nearly 2 a.m. when Yates finally took the last of the IV. Four hours later Suzie was back on the road for Chico--a surgical assistant for a dermatopathologist, she had to be at work early the next day--leaving Tyler alone as his body waged a war against itself. The absorption of the antibodies causes the protective lining around his brain and spinal cord to swell, leading to splitting headaches and killer back pain. As the marrow responds to so many foreign antibodies, his bones ache and joints throb, exacerbating his acute psoriatic arthritis. When he was a kid Tyler described the experience as "being eaten alive from the inside out."
Many people who undergo the same type of infusion don't get out of bed for days afterward. Yet the morning after his IV, Yates was hunched over his textbooks. "I don't have time to be tired," he says. In the days after Yates has had an infusion, Becerra tries to limit his reps in practice, over the protests of his goalie. "I don't like special treatment," Yates says. "Just let me play." Soccer is not just an escape, it's part of his healing process. "The best I ever feel is when I'm on the field," he says. "Maybe it's the endorphins and the adrenaline. Maybe it's just because I'm having so much fun."
Soccer has long been an important part of his life. Incessantly sick as a baby, Tyler was finally given an accurate diagnosis at 20 months of age. Doctors told Suzie that they expected her son to be dead by age five. Living sequestered in a sterile environment, Tyler made it to his fifth birthday but shortly thereafter fell into what his mom calls "a deep, deep depression. He would sit at the window all day watching other kids play." Suzie took Tyler to see his pediatrician, who finally set him free. The good doctor's prescription? Go play in the mud. Go get dirty.