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National Grateful Patient Day: Spreading Gratitude and Hope

On National Grateful Patient Day, former NFL player Rolf Benirschke thanks the doctors, nurses and others who helped him recover from a life-threatening disease

National Grateful Patient Day is Sept. 7, 2018, a day for patients to show appreciation for the work and care of their families, doctors, nurses and hospitals everywhere.  In the upcoming weeks, we will be sharing some stories from grateful patients who want to celebrate, thank, and encourage the dedication of health professionals, caregivers and medical researchers for making a difference in their lives. 

Rolf Benirschke

My name is Rolf Benirschke, and my story begins when I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at the beginning of my second season playing in the NFL.  I continued to play as my condition worsened, until collapsing on a flight home after playing the New England Patriots. When the plane landed, I was taken to the hospital for emergency surgery and would endure a second abdominal surgery a few days later.  When I woke up, I had two ostomy bags on my side, was 65 pounds below my playing weight, and would spend the next six weeks in the intensive care unit battling sepsis and fighting for my life.

I eventually recovered and returned to play seven more seasons in the NFL, four of those with ostomy bags, and became the 20th player inducted into the San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame. 

My illness forced me to move from being bitter to accepting my situation and then figuring out how to get better. In the process, I found out something about myself—that I had more courage, more grit, a greater ability to persevere, and greater creativity than I ever knew I had. I discovered the indomitable spirit that I believe exists in all of us.

I have developed an intense appreciation for life and a gratefulness for family and friends and a greater appreciation for the wonder of things never noticed before. The course of my life is now on a path where I get to encourage, support and speak out on behalf of patients, especially those suffering from Inflammatory Bowel Disease or facing ostomy surgery.  

I have come to appreciate the technology and innovation that has occurred over the years. When I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis there were not many therapeutic options.  However, when I had my ostomy surgery, there were new kinds of appliances that had just been developed that allowed me to return to do what I enjoyed.

A lot of people supported me during this journey. I am grateful for my parents who were there every step of the way. I also had phenomenal doctors, nurses, teammates and our team strength coach, who would not give up on me, even when I gave up on myself countless times. I also can’t forget the thousands of Charger fans who donated blood, sent me cards and letters, and prayed for me.

The Grateful Patient Project was created to help spread the encouragement and support that I and so many others had received from our doctors, nurses, family and friends.

On Sept. 7, to celebrate National Grateful Patient Day, I will send a letter to my team strength coach who didn’t give up on me; University of California San Diego Health to express appreciation for the nurses and the doctors; and the Charger organization that gave me a chance to play again. I will also take my wife out to dinner and express my appreciation to her for the love and encouragement she has shared for the past 28 years. 

Don’t you have a doctor, nurse, other healthcare provider or family member to thank today?

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