Iowa Hawkeyes

Former Hawkeye Zach McCool carries on despite rare blood disease

Fearless attitude has helped him overcome adversity

Iowa second baseman Zach McCool (25) forces out Illinois' Brandon Hohl (3) while trying turn a double play during a Big
Iowa second baseman Zach McCool (25) forces out Illinois’ Brandon Hohl (3) while trying turn a double play during a Big Ten Conference baseball game Friday, April 9, 2010 in Iowa City. (The Gazette)
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WAUKEE — Zach McCool has always embraced challenges.

The steeper the odds, the more excited he was to overcome them. And, if anyone uttered words like “can’t” or “won’t,” McCool became determined to silence doubters.

It’s how he built a reputation as a fearless athlete at just 5-foot-7, earning all-Big Ten Conference baseball honors at Iowa, all-state recognition and multiple school records as an undersized receiver and a state wrestling title in two finals appearances at West Delaware.

McCool resorted to his never-back-down attitude when he was diagnosed with polycythemia vera — a type of cancer that causes bone marrow to produce too many red blood cells, thickens the blood and slows its flow. He has managed the disease for three years and continues as a baseball instructor and co-Director of Apparel and Merchandise at Sportsplex West Recreation Center.

“It all started with my mentality in grade school and high school,” McCool said. “People telling me you can’t make it to (NCAA) Division I and you can’t do this or that. You’re too small. You’ve hit your peak.

“Now, I want people to think ‘he’s got a rare condition but he’s going to absolutely beat this.’ I’m going to step on top of the podium again. At the end of the day, I’m going to raise my hand and live the life as long as I can.”

If there is anyone equipped to defeat the affliction it’s the four-time state wrestling medalist and four-year Hawkeyes baseball letterwinner.

“He’s one of the fiercest competitors I’ve ever coached,” West Delaware wrestling coach Jeff Voss said. “He didn’t back down from anything or anybody. He’s a fireball. I think he looks forward to challenges.”

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McCool takes two blood thinners daily and a chemotherapy pill twice a day. He has to attend occasional checkups, undergo ultrasounds and prick his finger to check blood levels.

“It’s the norm for me,” McCool said. “I just keep doing what I’m doing.”

His battle began in 2017 when he came home from a workout. He suffered a sharp, shooting pain in his sternum. McCool said he thought he was injured from twisting during an exercise. It was much more serious.

“My liver enlarged so much that it was actually pulsating on my rib cage,” McCool said. “It was piercing. It put me on my knees. I had no idea what’s going on and I had to get checked out.”

McCool’s sister and mother-in-law are nurses at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. They suggested he participate in a study and receive a body scan with hopes it would reveal what was wrong. He underwent the initial procedure and then was sent immediately for an MRI.

“They saw my entire body and how enlarged my liver was,” McCool said. “They’re like ‘we need to you go see somebody.’”

Answers didn’t come quickly. Three months passed before they were able to identify what was wrong, receiving consultation and analysis from the entire UIHC staff. A blood clot was discovered on his liver, killing about 50 percent of the organ’s function and leaving him on the verge of needing a transplant.

“It was a weight lifted off my shoulders, because I was in and out of the hospital for those months,” said the 30-year-old McCool, who noted the disease can cause leukemia and normally affects people older than 60. “I’ve been with a hematologist. I’ve been with a liver specialist. I’ve been through all of my (personal) doctors.”

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McCool said there was no warning. Symptoms suddenly appeared, but it could have existed for years, remaining dormant.

“One of my genes broke off and created a jak2 mutation,” McCool said. “It just happened overnight. They don’t know how long I’ve actually had it.”

McCool needed to have a shunt implanted to eliminate possible clots and help blood flow from his liver to his heart. Making matters difficult, McCool suffers from Budd-Chiari Syndrome, a condition that includes narrowing and obstruction of veins. The procedure failed 23 times before it finally was successful.

Miraculously, the umbilical vein opened unexpectedly, giving doctors better access to the liver.

“It just opened up,” McCool said. “They had never seen that before, so they went through my belly button and finally got that shunt in.”

Thicker blood has wreaked havoc with the shunt, which can get bent, clog and prevent proper blood flow. McCool said he is on his fifth version. McCool is usually back to work within a day after each procedure.

“Basically, my body tells me when I’m not feeling right,” McCool said. “My legs will feel really heavy. It will feel like I’ve got softballs in my calves. I can’t eat much at all. I might even vomit. They’ll do an ultrasound and check the flow of that. It’s wild.”

Some groups have speculated the disease can be reversed, despite not knowing how. He hopes a cure will be found. The goal is to experience remission and beat it altogether.

Until then, McCool will continue to work with players of all ages, sharing the game he loves. He provides individual lessons, working with players from Sioux City to Pella. West Des Moines Dowling senior pitcher and Texas Christian commit Carter Baumler is among the D-I prospects McCool has mentored.

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McCool said he has to be careful of his surroundings while working with athletes, adding that basic bumps cause him to bruise easily. He also has to use caution to prevent possible threats to his immune system.

Slowing down is not an option. This is just another battle he plans to conquer.

“It’s just a change of lifestyle that became the norm for me,” McCool said. “It’s a lot of mental toughness, waking up every day and being happy that you’re alive because you never know what tomorrow is going to bring.”

Comments: (319) 368-8679; kj.pilcher@thegazette.com

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