The fight of his life

March 06, 2013, 7:25 p.m. (ET)

This article appeared in the Winter 2013 edition of The Belt.

Mookie Thomas ignored all of the signs.

Why wouldn’t he? He was a collegiate wrestler, a stand-out two sport athlete in high school, had eight percent body fat and made physical conditioning a full time job that was as important to him as his education.

“Back in the day in high school I just ate, slept and trained,” Mookie said. “It was just eat, sleep, train and school.”

He excelled in Georgia high school wrestling. A career that was highlighted by his Fayette County record for pins in a season yielded a scholarship to Spartanburg Methodist College, a junior college in Spartanburg, S.C.

In the fall of 2011, the collegiate wrestler and lifelong taekwondo athlete was living the life he earned all those days running on the track and sweating on the mat. His college experience was cut short after one semester, though, because a dislocated shoulder sidelined him and made way for an overindulgence of college’s perks and freedoms.

“I screwed up my grades and was partying too much,” Mookie admitted. “I got out, had my freedom and went bananas.”

When Mookie went home for Winter Break, he and his father, Roland Thomas, Jr., decided it was best that Mookie continue his education closer to home. The plan was to attend Georgia State, which is in his hometown of Atlanta. He would start in the fall and work in the meantime. They decided Mookie needed more structure to get his life going in the right direction again.

Still, the signs were right there in front of him.

“I attributed his not performing well to not being at home and not having the workout structure that he had in high school,” said Roland, an Atlanta cop. “When he came home for winter break, I would try to get him to work out. He would work out but he wouldn’t perform to the level he used to.”

Mookie took a job as a security guard at a 7-Up warehouse in the area. He worked nights and spent his time focusing on taekwondo at his hometown gym, Team Atlanta Taekwondo. 

“The kid would sleep 12 to 14 hours a day,” said Mookie’s coach, David Wilch. “When we would go to tournaments, the guy was like a marathon sleeper. In class he would work hard. You didn’t see it in his performance. You saw it in his stamina. He would get tired really fast. You could tell he wasn’t faking it. You could see he was getting tired. I started to have concern for him.”

Mookie blamed it on late nights. When he worked, it was the graveyard shift. When he didn’t, it was his self-proclaimed insomnia.

“I told him he needed to see a doctor and he just told me, ‘No it’s just a flu. It’s just a flu,’” said Wilch.

As the weeks continued and Mookie’s training intensified, the signs were everywhere. He vomited at practice and he had to sit up to sleep. His breathing continued to become more shallow, his fatigue became more obvious and lumps on his collar bone became so thick that he could not button his Polo shirts.

“You could literally see the lymph nodes,” he said. “They looked like miniature golf balls on my neck they were so big. You could see them bulging out of my shirt.”

Mookie shrugged off the symptoms, figuring he was just over-working his body. Those symptoms, however, finally became too alarming to ignore.

February 12, 2011
Mookie finished his shift at the 7-Up warehouse at 5 a.m. the morning of Feb. 12, 2011. Exhausted from a long night at work, he made the 90 minute drive from Atlanta to Ringgold, Ga., which is five miles south of the Tennessee boarder, for the annual Winter Battle taekwondo tournament. It was a chance for Mookie to further hone his taekwondo skills and take another step toward his ultimate goal of making the U.S. National Team.

The tournament started off well for Mookie, but a few fights in he began to notice something was very wrong.

“I was fighting a guy and I was up but I couldn’t breathe,” he recalled. “I probably slept in my car for an hour and a half and we had to fight first. I was at work the whole night before that so I just thought I was tired. I never really threw up as a kid and I don’t have a gag reflex or anything. In the middle of the fight I couldn’t breathe, I was hyperventilating like crazy, but I was in shape. I bowed out of that one fight to catch my breath and I started throwing up everywhere.”

Mookie had to bow out of the Saturday tournament. He found two days’ worth of excuses to put off seeing the doctor—work and otherwise—before his father finally gave him an ultimatum.

“Tuesday I wake him up and said, ‘Look, you have two choices: you either leave this house or you take yourself to the doctor,” Roland said.

Mookie finally gave in. He went to the hospital to have his breathing and those strange lumps on his chest checked out. In the top physical condition of his life, Mookie did not expect much.

Roland’s phone rang around 3 or 4 p.m. that day while he was at work.

“Dad,” Mookie said. “They’re about to take me to Piedmont (Hospital) by ambulance.”

“What?” Roland asked. “What’s wrong?”

“I’ve got cancer.”

’Oh my God, my son is dead’
A chest x-ray showed a 21-centimeter mass in Mookie’s chest and a subsequent growth near his neck that doctors believed were malignant tumors. He had smaller tumors from his throat to his groin and the doctors knew he was infested with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The only question was how far had it progressed? An emergency biopsy was ordered following a second x-ray.

When the doctors put Mookie under for the operation, the muscles in his chest could not hold the weight of the massive tumor. It pinched off his trachea, his lungs collapsed and he went into cardiac arrest. Mookie flat lined on the operating table.

“I’m a police officer so I can pick up on intermittent noise in the background,” said Roland, who sat in the waiting room while doctors performed the biopsy. “I hear them call for a doctor with a funny name. They said it two other times and I realized it must be a code for something. Four doctors, one after another, run from wherever they were to the Intensive Care Unit.

“I thought, ‘Oh, that’s my son. I know it is.’”

Roland did not know at that moment how bad it really was. A team of doctors were on the other side of the wall resuscitating his 19-year-old son, trying to save the life of a young man who entered the hospital thinking at the very worst he might have mono. Two hours later, two doctors and a security guard asked Roland to join them in a side room.

“I thought, ’Oh my God, my son is dead.’ My heart was literally on the ground,” Roland said.

A cardiologist told him that when they put Mookie under, the mass was too big for him to support breathing on his own. They tried to give him a breathing tube but the space was so small that they couldn’t fit the tube down his throat. The mass was below the area where they would do a tracheotomy.

“Is my son dead?” Roland asked.

“No, but he did flat line on the table,” the doctor said. “We were able to bring him back but we’ve hooked a machine up to him called an ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) machine.”

Mookie was in a medically induced coma. His breathing was so weak and the cancer so vicious that doctors sedated him to the point of unconsciousness, allowing the ECMO to act as his respiratory and circulatory systems.

Though he survived the surgery, it was time to act fast. While in his 13-day coma, doctors blasted him with two rounds of radiation and commenced an aggressive session of chemotherapy. They concluded that he had Stage III Hodgkin’s lymphoma because it had not spread to his bone marrow. Normally with Hodgkin’s, doctors opt for an intense chemotherapy called Stanford V, but for fear of furthering his respiratory deterioration, they went with a slightly less intense chemo treatment called ABVD (Adriamycin, Bleomycin, Vinblastine and Dacarbazine).

“It was like a blow that came out of nowhere,” said Roland.

Roland sat with Mookie in the hospital room every day that he could get off work. He watched as his son’s muscles deteriorated in the hospital bed, ravaged by the chemo and radiation. He dropped from 207 to 149 pounds. He was in such good shape that there was little fat to burn, so his body ate muscle instead.

“He lost a quarter of his body weight,” said Roland.

Masked Practices
Mookie’s taekwondo training may have saved his life. For six months leading up to his coma, he was operating on a fraction of the normal six-liter lung capacity for an average adult male. When he woke up from his nearly two-week long coma, his athletics background provided the strength to not only re-teach himself how to walk (he was walking in two days), but it also helped him through his nine-month treatment.

Most importantly of all, however, it gave him something to live for.

“Honestly, taekwondo was the only thing that I had. I didn’t have anything else,” said Mookie. “I couldn’t go to school because I couldn’t be around large crowds. I couldn’t be in public places yet because I was so sick and my immune system was so bad. Anything would just make me vomit. The only thing that really kept me going that I was striving for was (USAT) Nationals. That was my goal. I need to at least place because I need to make it to Team Trials.”

Lymph nodes act as filters for foreign substances in the body, acting as one of the body’s frontlines of defense against viruses. Having lymphoma and going through intensive chemotherapy, Mookie was at extreme risk of illness. He could not see friends, he saw very little family and he was in large part confined to his house.

Though he was recovering, Mookie went to chemotherapy regularly, alternating three days a week one week and then four days a week the next. He had radiation therapy five days a week for three straight weeks at a time. Luckily for him, he said, he had the support of his father, step mother, Stephanie, his Aunt Myra Smith and his grandmother, Mary Thomas.

But his body was going through torture. The chemotherapy, which was upped to a moderated schedule of Stanford V because ABVD was not strong enough, was poison. Taekwondo, as it turned out, was the remedy.

“It was his whole motivation to fight through it,” Roland said. “He wasn’t in school, he wasn’t working. It was his taekwondo family that really helped him push through it.”

Wilch allowed Mookie to come back to practice. Too weak to participate, Mookie sat on the side wearing a mask to protect him from germs.

“I would watch them kick as long as I could and then I’d probably pass out 30 minutes into practice,” he said. “I was too tired. Walking from the car into the school, which wasn’t that far, would wear me out.”

A taekwondo club can be a sweaty, bloody, dirty petri dish of a place, especially for an individual whose immune system is on the ropes. That’s why Mookie and his family took every precaution they could. Every time he went to watch practice he was armed with Germ-X and soap. He wore a surgical mask. After a few months of recovery when he was strong enough to participate, Mookie brought three outfits: one to warm up in, one to practice in and then another just to wear home. He brought clean hats, jackets, pants, shirts and socks so he would not get sick.

“I never missed a practice,” he said. ”The whole time I was sick, I never missed one practice. I was always there on Tuesday, I was always there on Thursday and I always woke up on Saturday mornings.”

His coach started to notice his progress.

“During his recovery time he was using taekwondo as a tool to try to get his body back into shape,” Wilch said. “It was a long process, a slow process, but it was very progressive. You could see changes constantly. His body was really weak when he came back, but he got stronger and stronger.

Fighting Back
Mookie was gaining weight, salvaging his stamina and getting back to his old self. While he was still enduring chemotherapy and radiation, Mookie was training harder than ever, obsessed with his goal of earning a spot on the U.S. National Team.

“I was really pushing myself,” he said. “I was going just as hard as my teammates. I would literally go so hard at practice that I would throw up, wash my mouth out and practice again until I threw up all over again. I just didn’t care.”

Then the bruises came. Mookie had reached the point where he felt he was strong enough to incorporate contact into his training, but he bruised easily due to his low blood platelet count, which doctors felt was a sign that he still wasn’t ready to return. He was ordered not to compete at the 2011 AAU National Championships. It was supposed to be a major step toward USAT competition and his goal of making the National Team. It was supposed to be his big comeback.

Mookie Thomas had some days where he feared he was going to die. He had other days where he was thankful that he was alive. The worst part of having cancer, though, was being told that he could not participate in the sport that he loved and his dreams would have to take a back seat.

“I started crying when he told me I couldn’t fight,” he said. “That was the hardest part of the whole thing. I tried to stay as positive as possible and not think about it. I didn’t post sad statuses on Facebook or anything. I really wasn’t sad for myself.”

A Major Comeback
On Dec. 5, 2011, Mookie won his first fight in a very long time.

“He went in for his last scan to check on the size of the tumors in his body and they said they were all gone,” Roland recalled. “He was in complete remission.”

According to the National Cancer Institute, a patient is not considered cancer-free until he or she has been in remission for five years because that is when life expectancy and survival rates increase significantly. Regardless, Mookie has gone on to pick up his life where he temporarily left off in 2011. In July 2012, just seven months after going into remission, Mookie just missed the heavy weight final at the USAT National Championships in Dallas, losing 7-4 in sudden death to Aaron Turner, the eventual champion.

He even got the chance to compete for his dream, a spot on the National Team, by qualifying for January’s 2013 USAT National Team Trials in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“It just shows you that with the hard work, mental fortitude, discipline and training, you can overcome almost anything,” Roland said. “Taekwondo is a sport that is unlike anything else because of the martial arts side to it. It just comes at you at so many different levels—spiritually, physically, mentally. Once you’ve got all those things clicking, it’s hard to quit. I really feel that part of his martial arts training is the reason that he was able to fight back from where he was.

“The fight that he fought is something that, unless you lived it, you couldn’t put your hands on it. That’s a whole different type of fight. He’s my biggest hero.”

Mookie has proven since his bout with cancer that he can compete once again on the mat. He hopes that he can continue his taekwondo career for a long time. No victory, however, was sweeter than the one that began two years ago this month. It lasted 296 days, countless rounds of chemotherapy and taught Mookie and his family one very valuable lesson:

“Appreciate the small things because you never know,” Mookie said. “If you’re not giving it 150 percent, it doesn’t matter. I was always healthy and for the most part did what I was supposed to do, but you just can’t take any moment for granted. It could all be over with in one second. You never know what is in store for you next.”