According to some medical Authorities, you're not supposed to be able to conquer eosinophilia myalgia syndrome (EMS). You're not supposed to be able to regain your dexterity, your reflexes, your strength. And you certainly shouldn't be able to strap on an NHL goalie's armor, then go out and stop shots fired at up to 110 mph from point-blank range.
But then, you're not Mark Fitzpatrick. Two years after he was stricken with EMS, a potentially fatal blood disorder that caused his muscles to lose strength and his feet and hands to balloon, Fitzpatrick, 24, is taking a regular turn in the net for the New York Islanders.
The night before Halloween he played his best game since he contracted EMS, stopping 23 of 24 shots in a 4-1 win over the New Jersey Devils. Afterward, in the visitors' dressing room beneath the Meadowlands Arena, Fitzpatrick was stone-faced as he met with reporters and recounted for the zillionth time the abridged version of how he copes with a disease that has killed 36 people since it was first identified in 1989, has afflicted more than 1,500 others and has left another 3,000 with some symptoms.
"Same ol' same ol," he said with a wide grin after the journalists moved away. "It's like this after every game, no matter how good or how bad I play. I'm excited about winning, and I want to talk about the game, but all anyone wants to hear about is my health."
It is, Fitzpatrick will admit, a remarkable story. During training camp in the fall of 1990 he began to feel run-down and sore. While he was on a flight to Los Angeles for an exhibition game, his limbs became grossly distended. "I'd never seen anything like it," says Al Arbour, the Islanders' coach. "His arms and legs swelled up hard as a rock. It didn't feel like skin. It felt like the top of my desk. It was a scary, scary thing."
Fitzpatrick checked into Centinela Hospital in Los Angeles, a slap shot away from the Great Western Forum, and endured five days of poking and prodding by doctors who were unsure of what was happening to him. A surgeon removed a piece of his right forearm for a biopsy, a procedure that has left a livid, two-inch-long scar. "Those were the worst five days of my life," Fitzpatrick says. "Lying there in that hospital bed, knowing there was something drastically wrong with my body, not sleeping, just trying to understand what might have happened."
Finally the diagnosis was confirmed. Fitzpatrick joined the lengthening list of people with EMS, an illness that in most cases can be traced to toxic batches of L-tryptophan—a genetically engineered amino acid—that were manufactured by the Showa Denko company of Japan. Fitzpatrick claims the L-tryptophan was present in an over-the-counter dietary supplement he had been taking to build his stamina for the long season. While doctors have not yet definitely linked Fitzpatrick's case to the Showa Denko product, L-tryptophan has since been banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
"I was more frustrated than angry," says Fitzpatrick, who has filed a $108 million lawsuit against Showa Denko. "It's not even a natural illness. It's a man-made illness. A man-made mistake."
For three months Fitzpatrick holed up at his parents' home in Kitimat, on the remote northern coast of British Columbia, watching the Islanders play by means of a satellite dish and waiting for the swelling to subside. "I didn't know if I was ever going to be able to play again," he says. "The-doctors just told me to go home and rest, to let time take its course. It was really depressing. Gradually, I started to improve."
By December, Fitzpatrick was going stir-crazy in Kitimat, so he treated himself to a 10-day Caribbean cruise that served as rehabilitation for his body and his spirits. A month later, in January 1991, he went back to work. After 12 games in the minors, he made a triumphant return to Long Island, beating the Boston Bruins 5-3 in the Islanders' final home game of the season.