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Penn football beats Columbia at Franklin Field Penn 90, Drew Goldsmith, picks up a fumble for a touchdown. Credit: Katie Rubin

They told Drew Goldsmith that he would never play football again.

Goldsmith, the senior anchor of the Penn defensive line who is second on the team in sacks, was coming off a successful junior campaign when he suddenly came up limp with what felt like a pulled muscle in his calf during an offseason workout.

Though the injury was diagnosed by the trainers as compartment syndrome — a condition common to runners — Goldsmith had his suspicions. To be safe, he had it checked with an MRI.

The senior’s worst fears were confirmed when he learned that he also had a major blood clot in his leg. By now, he knew just what that meant.

* * *

Four years earlier, on the final day of October during his junior year of high school, Goldsmith started feeling nauseous in the middle of a test. Then he blacked out. He woke up surrounded by scared classmates. He had suffered a miniature stroke.

After being rushed to the hospital, the doctors explained that he had experienced a transient ischemic attack, or TIA. They were not, however, able to find its cause.

“He didn’t even remember that it was Halloween that day,” said Leslie Flaherty, Goldsmith’s mother. “Apparently he was doing a test, and all he could do was write his name. His brain couldn’t understand the page.”

Under close monitor, no other signs of an illness appeared until a few weeks later, when Goldsmith began feeling calf pain. He was again taken to the hospital, and it was found that Goldsmith had an extensive blood clot in his leg. He would remain in intensive care for a week, as the doctors searched for answers.

“He had a battery of tests — MRIs, PET scans, ultrasounds, blood work and bone marrow biopsy — a wild thing to happen to a big, strong football player who rarely even had so much as a cold! We suddenly became fearful he might die of an embolism,” Flaherty explained in an e-mail.

Eventually, Goldsmith was diagnosed with antiphospholipid antibody syndrome — a dangerous blood clotting disorder that had also been the cause of the TIA. Goldsmith was immediately put on blood thinners, and there was to be no more football. Not this season, not ever again.

“We talked to a ton of doctors,” Goldsmith said. “I must have seen a half-dozen doctors that first year, and all of them said there was no chance I’d be playing football again.”

Though his high school team had to make Goldsmith ineligible for the spring, they couldn’t stop him from practicing. He was told that he was done playing high school football, but Goldsmith still came to every practice and completed all the exercises and drills by himself on the sideline.

“That was when we fully realized the importance of football in his life,” explained Flaherty. “He wasn’t going to go home and just start playing video games. He was on the sidelines, and people probably thought he was crazy — he just wouldn’t go home.”

Not willing to give up on their son, Goldsmith’s parents searched around for more specialists. After a short while, the family heard about research being done on patients with blood clots at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. It was there they met David Kuter, the director of clinical hematology.

* * *

At the time Goldsmith was introduced to Kuter, the doctor was also treating a number of NFL players for similar disorders. Kuter went on to administer a unique blood thinner regimen that would allow Goldsmith to play football.

“We went to him just trying to figure out how to handle the disease,” Goldsmith said, “and we were kind of surprised when he said he would help me out with a plan to play football.”

He finished out high school with the team, playing well enough to draw interest from the Penn coaching staff.

However, in the summer leading up to college, unmanageable seizures were threatening his ability to live a normal life.

Each would start the same. Goldsmith would smell a stench in the air, followed by a feeling of depression often accompanied by nausea and vomiting, and he would proceed to blackout for a few seconds. He would reawake a few moments later, entirely unaware of where he was or what he had just been doing.

These episodes, accompanied by a constant feeling of tiredness, prompted Goldsmith to seek additional help.

He eventually met Michael Lockshin, who proposed a new experimental treatment that involved the introduction of Rituximab — a drug used for treating lymphoma in cancer patients. Through a long and painstaking process, Lockshin’s treatment would ideally rid Goldsmith’s blood of the syndrome.

The Rituximab treatment began with a two-day hospital stint, during which Goldsmith was hooked up to an IV.

“They were dripping the stuff into my blood at a slow pace, and every once in a while I got a reaction,” Goldsmith said. “When I got a reaction, I’d start breaking out, and my skin would start turning red, they’d have to bring the doses back.”

He received a similar treatment six months later, and much to everyone’s surprise, the Rituximab cured his disorder.

“A lot of doctors didn’t think it would do anything,” Goldsmith said, “and even after they saw the results that it cured me, they didn’t believe it.”

* * *

Goldsmith became a full-time starter for Penn in 2008. That year, he led the top ranked defense in the Ivy League with four sacks.

“To see him play in college is almost surreal,” Flaherty said. “I never imagined that he’d be able to do it from a medical standpoint.”

Things were going well, until that fateful offseason practice when the sharp pain in his left calf re-emerged.

“The worst part was that I was 100 percent physically; I had no symptoms from the blood clot,” he said.

The doctors told Goldsmith if his blood clot went away, he could come back for another season if he received a medical redshirt. Goldsmith did, and as soon as he recovered, he began training for one last season.

But Goldsmith was informed in February by team doctors that it was simply too risky for him to return. For the second time, he feared his playing days were behind him.

“Countless people, from our doctors to our trainers to the specialists, all told him, ‘No, no, no,’” recounted Penn coach Al Bagnoli.

But the desire to play wouldn’t fade. Once again, he called upon Kuter.

The doctor agreed that Goldsmith was fit to play if put back on the same blood thinner regimen that allowed him to play in high school.

Kuter was able to convince the legal team at Penn that enough time had passed since his clot and that the bloodwork looked good enough for Goldsmith to return to play in 2010.

* * *

This season, Goldsmith is leading the vaunted Penn defensive front.

Against Columbia, he recovered a fumble and carried the ball for his first touchdown since the sixth grade.

Things still aren’t easy though, and keeping his body in shape is a constant battle. Goldmsith now uses a special injectable blood thinner, but must inject himself only at specific times.

“If I accidentally take the blood thinner too late, or if I take it too often, then I’m at risk of bleeding during practice or the game,” Goldsmith said. “And if I don’t take it enough, then I’m at risk of getting a blood clot.”

Today he walks around with spider veins in his leg — “Like an old person,” he quips. Sometimes his calf puffs up, so he wears a long black compression sleeve on his left leg to keep the swelling down.

But if you asked the fifth-year senior, he would tell you that it was worth the wait.

“I think my life would be a lot different if I wasn’t doing football,” Goldsmith said. “It’s all I ever wanted really.”

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