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Princeton's Jordan Culbreath fights his way back from rare disorders

By Kathy Orton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2010; 12:46 AM

Numbers are a big part of Jordan Culbreath's life. As a mechanical and aerospace engineering major at Princeton, he works with numbers every day in the classroom. As a senior running back, he accumulates numbers every week on the football field.

Neither of those numbers matter as much as the ones Culbreath hears about every week from the doctor. A year ago, the 22-year-old from Falls Church discovered he had aplastic anemia and paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH), two rare and potentially fatal disorders that require him to have his blood tested once a week.

These days, instead of worrying about his average yards per carry, Culbreath focuses on his number of platelets per microliter. As long as those numbers are good, he can play football - a sport he believed he would never play again after his diagnosis.

"It's hard to not get your hopes up and get all your emotions into those three numbers that you get back after your blood test," he said.

Culbreath has played football since he was 7 years old. He quit the sport his junior year at Marshall High School, prefering to concentrate on basketball and baseball, then returned to it his senior year. He had no intention of playing in college, however.

"Once I got into Princeton, I thought I'd just concentrate on my academics," Culbreath said. "But my mom convinced me so we sent a tape in" to former coach Roger Hughes.

Culbreath's father, Cliff, won a national championship at Southern California, but it was his mother, Alma, who pushed him to go out for the team.

"We always thought he was really good, but he just said: 'I'm not going to play sports in college. That's not why I'm going,' " Alma Culbreath said.

Culbreath's breakout game came against Cornell his sophomore season in 2007, when he rushed for 145 yards and two touchdowns and landed on the top 10 plays on "SportsCenter." As a junior, the first-team all-Ivy League selection led the league in rushing. By his senior year, in 2009, Culbreath was the league's preseason offensive player of the year.

The symptoms started showing up the first day Princeton was in full pads for preseason practice. Culbreath couldn't understand why he had trouble catching his breath after just one play, or why he became tired walking up a flight of stairs. Cuts wouldn't heal, and there was a tingling sensation in his fingers. The headaches were the worst.

"I'm pretty stubborn so I sort of pushed the symptoms aside for a long time," he said. "I attributed it to the pressure of being a captain and a returning senior. . . . It was easy for me to put an excuse on every symptom. That's why it took me so long to come forward with it."

In the second game of the season, Culbreath injured his ankle, an otherwise routine injury that would have a profound effect on his life.

When he went to team doctor Margot Putukian for treatment for the ankle, he told her about the fatigue and the headaches. Putukian ordered a blood test and when she saw the results, she immediately sent him to the hospital.

"When we got there, we thought maybe it's mono, not too serious," Alma Culbreath said. "Then a couple days later, they came back and told us we know for sure it's not cancer. And we're like: 'Of course it's not cancer. What are you talking about?' It was such a shock hearing [the doctor] say that because we totally didn't think anything like that at all. He's never been sick."

Culbreath eventually learned he had aplastic anemia, a blood disorder in which the body's bone marrow doesn't make enough blood cells, and PNH, which causes red blood cells to break apart. His sprained ankle may have saved his life. He might have been one hit away from a serious hemorrhage or worse.

The most successful treatment for aplastic anemia is a bone marrow transplant. Unfortunately, Culbreath's older sister, Carissa, was not a match. (Donors almost always are siblings, and even then, a sibling has only a 25 percent chance of being a match.)

During the next two months, spent mostly at National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Culbreath took up to 28 pills a day. He had 18 platelet transfusions and 12 red blood cell transfusions. He received intravenous immunosuppressant drug therapy through a pump that he carried in a fanny pack.

There were setbacks: He had a bad reaction to his first platelet transfusion and the first time he received anti-thymocyte globulin, the drug that treats aplastic anemia. A port used to deliver medicine intravenously became infected. But the worst part was waiting for the medication to take affect.

"It's really hard because when you start taking the drugs you don't even see a response for the first three months even if it's working, so there's no much you can do but wait," said Culbreath, who withdrew from Princeton to receive treatment.

Six months after his diagnosis, Culbreath was cleared to play football. His aplastic anemia is under control, but he still undergoes infusions every two weeks to treat PNH.

"I wasn't scared at all," Culbreath said about playing football again. "I was more excited to have an opportunity. I felt like it was almost a responsibility of mine since I have the opportunity to play again. There are a lot of people who don't have that opportunity. I feel like it would be irresponsible of me just to let that chance go by, especially when football has been such a large part of my life.

"I have to do everything I can to have this disease not affect my life. Throughout the treatment, and even now, I do as much as I can to make it have the least affect on my life as it can."

You might think a mom who urged her son to play football would have second thoughts about letting him back on the field after watching him go through his medical ordeal. Not Alma Culbreath.

"I love it," she said. "I was actually hoping since the beginning that he could eventually play again. He's my kid. I love watching him play. I could watch him play forever."

No one knew what to expect from Culbreath this season, but it didn't take long for him to prove he wasn't going to let his condition limit him. In the second game, Culbreath scored a touchdown in the second overtime to lead Princeton to a 36-33 win over Lafayette.

"He plays every play like it's his last play," running backs coach E.J. Henderson said. "He throws his body around. As a coach, you can't believe a year ago where we were with him. . . . He's a guy I look up to. I coach him, but I look up to him as a person."

Princeton has had little success this season. The Tigers (1-5, 0-3) are tied for last place in the Ivy League standings. Culbreath is their leading rusher, but his 47.3 yards per game average is well below what it was two years ago (102.6). But none of those numbers matter to him.

"I see every game as an extra game that I'm getting to play because I had already seen my career taken away," he said. "I've already felt having that last game. All these for me are bonus games. I'm really just cherishing every single play that I get to be out there because a year ago I definitely did not think I was going to be in this situation."

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