Concern flooded through Nick Willertz as he looked at his teammate during a Feb. 24, 2018, bus ride back to Lynchburg.
Quickly pushed aside were the thoughts of the game he and the University of Lynchburg men’s lacrosse team had just completed, a matchup with seventh-ranked Cabrini in Pennsylvania decided by a goal. Focus, instead, turned to Andrew Thomas.
“He was definitely just struggling,” Willertz said of Thomas, a fellow junior at the time and his roommate.
Thomas, normally content to quietly slide into the background in a group of 50 players, became the center of attention. The 5-foot-8 player couldn’t get comfortable and was having trouble breathing. Willertz and his teammates could see the agony enveloping Thomas’ usually calm demeanor.
“‘Just do everything you can, man. Just keep breathing.’ Just trying to say stuff like that,” Willertz recalled telling Thomas. “And then as the bus ride went on, he was in excruciating pain.”
No one knew exactly what was wrong. But, Willertz said, “all of us were starting to realize it was pretty serious.”
The post-game trek back to Lynchburg, normally reserved for rest and reflection, took a fateful turn.
Thomas couldn’t sit all the way back in his seat without experiencing pain. He couldn’t take a deep breath.
As his teammates looked on, Thomas found his way to the restroom at the back of the bus and started vomiting.
The injury he knew he’d endured during the game began morphing from an inconvenience into a real problem.
According to Thomas, the pain first emerged as he delivered a body check to a Cabrini player.
“The other team got the ball, tried to get it over midfield,” he said. “I just kind of ran into the dude.”
In a game against one of the nation’s top teams, every play counted. Thomas “had to” do what he could to try to prevent a goal.
The moments that followed the hit brought a punch of discomfort. Immediately, Thomas said, he got the wind knocked out of him. But Thomas didn’t find the nearest exit, didn’t call for a sub, choosing instead to continue playing.
“I was like, ‘No big deal. They can’t do anything about it anyway,’” Thomas recalled thinking, attributing the pain to what he thought was a cracked rib, “So might as well play through it.”
Only after the game did he process the hit and its ramifications.
“That’s when it really hurt the most,” he said, explaining his pain intensified as he lay on the ground while an athletic trainer checked him out.
But at the time, there weren’t obvious signs that required serious treatment.
So Thomas joined his teammates on the bus, hoping the pain would subside eventually.
Things only got worse.
Coach Steve Koudelka asked Thomas to move up to the front of the bus with him not long into the nearly six-hour journey back. Thomas could use some space, and Koudelka could keep a better eye on him there.
For stretches, the junior was aware and talking normally with his coach. The two shared thoughts on another team as they watched film, Thomas said, remembering the moment Koudelka pointed out a player they’d have to watch out for in their upcoming matchup.
But quickly, Thomas’ demeanor changed.
“He was really warm for five, 10 minutes, and then really cold for five, 10 minutes. Just kind of had these episodes where for 10 minutes we would be having a great conversation and talking, and then for 10 minutes he would be in excruciating pain,” Koudelka said. “The ebbs and flows of that kind of spoke to, ‘There’s more here than meets the eye.’”
A couple hours into the trip, the team pulled into a Wawa.
As the rain fell that evening, Thomas left his space on the bus and found a spot on the ground, where he lay trying to find relief from the pain.
But none came.
By then, Koudelka and Lynchburg’s athletic training staff knew the problem wasn’t a cracked rib. They knew it was something serious.
They hoped, then, that doctors at a nearby hospital could provide the answers.
All the explanations didn’t come immediately, but doctors started to chip away at the mystery when Thomas arrived at a Northern Virginia hospital.
While his teammates continued on the road back to Lynchburg, Koudelka and athletic training staff decided to get Thomas to a doctor immediately, putting him on the school van that trailed the team bus and turning it toward the hospital.
“I think when these people come onto our campus, there’s a certain obligation we have to them. And probably the first and foremost [responsibility] is to keep them safe,” Koudelka said.
Thomas, in fact, didn’t have a cracked rib.
He was bleeding into his chest cavity. One of his lungs was “pretty much completely collapsed,” Thomas said, and the other was partially collapsed.
Quickly, the Roswell, Georgia, native was transported to a bigger hospital nearby in Fairfax, a place better equipped to respond to his situation.
Multiple tests later, doctors had their answer.
A tumor growing in Thomas’ body had ruptured.
He had a paraganglioma, a rare tumor that attacks the nervous system, according to the American Association of Endocrine Surgeons. Such tumors are found in just two out of every 1 million people each year, Columbia University’s Department of Surgery said.
In a matter of hours, Thomas went from looking healthy to facing death.
Amid the danger, Thomas’ laid-back personality took over.
“In the back of my mind, I was kind of sketched out,” he said, “but I remember still just being calm.”
Even facing surgeries — one to stop the bleeding and another to remove the tumor — and despite not knowing whether the tumor was cancerous, Thomas remained upbeat.
“It was a big deal,” he said, “but I didn’t really make it feel like a big deal.”
In fact, Thomas learned, the second surgery came with potential devastating side effects. The tumor touched his spine, meaning he could be paralyzed if something went wrong.
“I was like, ‘OK then, don’t mess up,’” Thomas said with a smile, remembering his thoughts upon hearing that news.
After about a week in the hospital, Thomas was released and on his way back to Lynchburg to rejoin the team he was forced to part ways with on that rainy February evening.
Both surgeries were successful. Doctors removed the tumor — which was benign — completely. It was the size of a softball, according to Thomas, and weighed nearly half a pound.
Along with the positive medical outlook Thomas took away from his stay, he carried with him a badge he’ll forever wear.
The horizontal scar across his back, near his shoulder blade, that stretches about a foot remains to tell the story of the traumatic event.
“I like it,” he said with a smile. “It’s a little souvenir.”
In the hours shrouded in uncertainty over his condition, Thomas’ teammates and coaches weren’t concerned with what would come of the rest of their season without Thomas, the team’s second-leading goal scorer and the Old Dominion Athletic Conference’s eighth-leading goal scorer in 2017.
“I don’t remember even thinking about that at all,” Koudelka said. “… In that hospital, everything shut down for those 12 hours or so.”
The Hornets knew they’d miss Thomas on the field but remained focused on getting him healthy first.
“Obviously eventually, you start to realize that’s a big missing piece on the field,” Willertz said. “[But we tried to] give him the message that, … ‘We’re gonna be fired up when you’re back, but don’t push it, don’t do it too soon. When you’re ready, it’s gonna be awesome to have you back.’”
Thomas, though, knew he’d be restless on the sideline.
“I just wanted to get back on the field as quick as possible. [My sophomore year] was my first time really getting a lot of playing time, so I was like, ‘I can’t let this go. This is my chance,’” he said. “I just love the sport.”
So together with Lynchburg’s athletic training staff, Thomas slowly made his way back.
First, the rehab focused on stretching. Thomas had his ribs spread 6 inches for a surgery, he explained, so even lifting his arm above his head wasn’t possible for a period of time.
Walks around the track, with his stick back in his hand, served as cardio workouts — and a distraction from being away from his teammates — according to Caroline Wesley, Lynchburg’s director of athletic training services.
Eventually, Thomas regained a range of movement and the strength to allow him to shoot.
Day by day, he got a little bit healthier thanks to the work put in with staff and on his own.
“A lot of that is on him,” Wesley said of Thomas’ improvement. “We always kind of say, ‘We give you the tools, you have to use them, you have to do it.’
“He’s been really resilient through the whole thing. He just wants to just go do it.”
About seven months after Thomas delivered the fateful hit against Cabrini, he returned to the field with the Hornets for a fall scrimmage.
“The reason you coach is to find kids who love this sport as much as you do, and then you surround yourself with 50 of those guys. … He was absolutely somebody who, you could tell, loves playing this game. It’s one of the reasons he has the skill set that he has,” Koudelka said. “More than anything, it was just exciting for him.
“[For him] to be able to have [lacrosse] back and still be able to do it, to me, was the most satisfying part of this equation, because I knew he loved it.”
And for this year’s spring season, his senior year, Thomas is all the way back.
“He is healed as healed can be,” Wesley said.
Thomas has played in all 10 of the Hornets’ games so far and has tallied 12 goals, good for the fourth-highest total on the team, to go with six assists.
“It’s great to have him back. He’s one of the craftiest lacrosse players I’ve ever played with,” Willertz said of Thomas. “He’s pretty much money around the [goal].”
Much of Thomas’ scoring ability comes from a combination of natural talent and quickness, but an important piece of the equation comes in his physicality, too. And while some lacrosse players who’d gone through such trauma could tend to play reserved, Thomas takes a different approach.
“If I play a little hesitant, that’s not my game,” he said. “I’m used to throwing my body around a little bit.”
To this day, the cause of the tumor is unknown.
A trip to a geneticist last summer didn’t set off any red flags, he said. He doesn’t know how long the tumor had been growing, either.
But looking back, there were signs something was wrong.
Following lacrosse games he played in high school, he often felt a pain in his chest.
“My chest would be throbbing, and I was like, ‘pulled muscle,’” he said. “My parents knew about it. I’d just put a little Icy Hot on it.”
During a past doctor’s visit for an unrelated injury, he brought up the chest pain and received the same diagnosis — pulled muscle — and he didn’t have any reason to second-guess the response.
Thomas, though, isn’t bitter about doctors not catching the tumor earlier. Instead, he’s relieved now that he’s rid of the abnormal tissue, and a potential fatal injury no longer hangs over his head.
As he recalled what he called one of the most “unique” injury situations in his career around athletics, Koudelka said the ordeal has only produced a stronger player.
“There was something inside him that was causing some issues. … So now, his body has rejuvenated itself, it’s cleared of that,” he said. “… We’re seeing the strongest version of Andrew Thomas we’ve ever seen here, and it’s obviously a very good version. There’s no doubt about it.”