Nov 13 2009
Sharks' Jed Ortmeyer battles blood-clotting disorder
By David Pollak
Hockey players establish daily routines, but Jed Ortmeyer's is significantly different from anyone else's in the Sharks' locker room.
Because at some point each day, Ortmeyer must use a needle to inject a blood thinner directly into his stomach to combat a hereditary blood-clotting disorder that has threatened not only his hockey career but also his life.
The process is tricky and the timing must be precise. The blood thinner, Lovenox, needs to be in his system during the down time when he's not on the ice. And it needs to be out of his system when he plays or practices so that a hard check or a high stick does not cause fatal bleeding.
"It's been a long battle," said Ortmeyer, who nearly walked away from the game twice, most recently in 2008 when he played for the Nashville Predators.
Instead, medical advances have allowed the 31-year-old forward who signed with the Sharks as a free agent last summer to continue to play. And tonight he'll be facing his former team when the Sharks play the Predators at HP Pavilion.
All things considered, why hasn't he hung up the skates for good?
"Corny as it is and clichéd as it is, I enjoy playing hockey, and they always say you never know when your last shift is going to be," Ortmeyer said. "I wanted to go out on my terms and not be forced out by some medical issues."
Ortmeyer first experienced clotting problems in 2001 when he had knee surgery following his sophomore
season at Michigan, and clots formed in his legs, a common occurrence known as deep vein thrombosis.
But it wasn't until August 2006, when he was preparing for his second season with the New York Rangers, that he learned the full extent of his problems.
The episode started with a pain in his chest that he tried to ignore.
"I was like 'Aw, maybe I just pulled a muscle lifting or training' and didn't think much about it," he said. "I figured I was too young to be having a heart attack, too healthy. I talked to the trainer a little bit, but I just kind of thought it would go away."
It didn't. And even when his arm started to go numb and the pain spread to his shoulder, he chose not to deal with it.
But on a Sunday morning, after a round of golf at Bethpage Black the previous day where he couldn't carry his bag because his arm hurt so badly, Ortmeyer finally had to address it.
"I got up to go to the bathroom and I started coughing blood," he said, "so I called the trainers."
The Rangers immediately had him admitted to a hospital, but an initial series of X-rays didn't detect anything. It took one last dye scan to reveal the problem: Blood clots had traveled through his heart and emerged as pulmonary embolisms in each lung.
"Even then I didn't really know how serious it was until all of the nurses came in, one by one, and gave me hugs," Ortmeyer said. "At that point I was like 'What's going on?' And I realized how lucky I was that it pushed through my heart and didn't cause any major problems."
After the embolisms were discovered, his parents underwent genetic testing and discovered they both had a predisposition toward clotting that had been passed on to their son.
Ortmeyer needed about three months to recover from his hospital stay and played only 41 games with the Rangers the following season.
The next summer he signed a two-year contract with Nashville. But in February 2008, he once again required knee surgery. And while he was recuperating that summer at his Omaha, Neb., home, blood clots once again formed in his legs.
Immediately, he had a filter surgically inserted just below his rib cage to catch any clots before they reached his heart, lungs or brain. And he thought about quitting.
"But once I got around the guys, I realized I really missed it and I got the itch back so I decided to give it a shot," he said.
By this time Ortmeyer was working with blood specialists at both Georgetown and Vanderbilt. He underwent studies to see how long the Lovenox would stay in his system. He decided to wear extra padding around his midsection as added protection for the filter.
Ortmeyer missed the first two months of the 2008-09 season. When he was able to play again, the Predators sent him to their Milwaukee development team for what Ortmeyer says was supposed to be a conditioning assignment. Instead he played nearly the entire season there.
He signed with the Sharks on July 16, unsure of whether he'd end up playing in San Jose or Worcester. Known as a defensive specialist, his three goals already have him within two of tying his best NHL season, with the Rangers in 2005-06.
"The fact that he missed almost a year of hockey and then had the drive to work his way back through the minors reflects well on his character, and that's something we liked," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "His learning curve and his contribution to the team has been on a steady rise since day one."
Ortmeyer is constantly aware of the risks he faces. He wears compression stockings, takes frequent walks during flights and has a diet that avoids leafy green vegetables because they contain vitamin K, which promotes clotting.
And he knows he's fortunate that his wife, Maggie, supports his decision to keep playing.
"She obviously knows," he said, "that playing hockey makes me happy."
FILED UNDER: Jed Ortmeyer