VANCOUVER — Maybe Harlan Dohm came to hold an oar for a reason.
After all, what kind of logic leads anyone diagnosed with the Crohn’s, that painful chronic inflammatory disease of the digestive tract, to almost immediately take up a sport as physically and mentally demanding as rowing?
Unless, of course, you were only 12 and didn’t know any better.
“It’s kind of funny, but when I was first diagnosed back in 2006, I didn’t understand what I was getting into as a rower,” explains Dohm, 23, who after a choppy few seasons, has navigated himself back into calmer waters as a member of the UBC Thunderbirds’ crew.
“Right from the get-go, I was at a big disadvantage. I didn’t realize it. Had I known about the physical toll it takes on you, rowing might not have been the sport for me.”
On one hand, a huge understatement.
On the other, perhaps a subconscious inkling from somehow who, even at the age of 12, knew he needed a demanding partner for the hard-scrabble journey ahead.
“There is an advantage from the wisdom won from pain,” the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus was quoted as saying.
It’s hard to imagine many understanding that sentiment as acutely as Harlan Dohm
In April of 2015, as a member of UBC’s No. 1 boat, the 6-foot-5 Dohm found himself on the Fraser River as part of the eight-man crew as the ‘Birds beat arch-rival Victoria in the annual Brown Cup clash.
“I had been voted to be the captain of the UBC men’s rowing team and I had super successful season,” remembers Dohm, a Vancouver College grad. “Everything was going well. But then I started to get sick and none of the treatments were working.”
Nothing had been easy about managing his Crohn’s over the first half-dozen years of his competitive rowing career.
But suddenly, the pain had become debilitating.
“My whole large intestine shut down and I needed to get emergency surgery to remove it,” remembers Dohm. “I had about a 30-minute window to make the decision. That was a big one and you don’t really grasp the magnitude of it at the time. But less than two hours later, there I was, in surgery.”
In Dohm’s case, his Crohn’s was centred within his large intestine.
“Basically, what is happening with Crohn’s Disease is your body starts attacking itself,” says Dohm. “What my body thought was going on was that the large intestine was something foreign. So it started to attack it, started tearing holes in it, and that is what that burning feeling is.”
The best description Dohm has ever heard of the pain?
“Like burning razors going through your intestines,” he says of a description offered by Rob Hill, a mountain climber who also lost his large intestine to Crohn’s and who has since scaled each of The Seven Summits, the highest mountains on each of the world’s seven continents, including Mt. Everest.
LIVING A NORMAL LIFE
As open as Dohm is in sharing his struggles and triumphs, talking about his condition is not commonplace.
“This is really one of the first times I have decided to be a bit more open about it,” begins the Vancouver College grad who was hospitalized for a month after his surgery and subsequently lost 60 pounds.
“It’s something I have not been super public about, but this is an opportunity to speak and what I really want to get across to people who live with this very debilitating disease is that you can live a normal life.
“There is the impression that once you are diagnosed and you go through surgeries, that it hinders your quality of life. I want to show that you can live a normal life. There are things you need to learn to cope with. They shouldn’t be seen as obstacles, but as opportunities.”
Dohm isn’t trying to gloss over any of the battles that are, with daily regularity, right in the details of living moment to moment.
“You have to learn different ways of doing things,” says the Dohm. “I had my large intestine removed and that is a big deal. I have had a number of people ask me because they are afraid that once they have this surgery, what will they be able to do afterwards?
“I have to drink a lot more water now, put back electrolytes, and plan the bathroom a bit more. But the more you work with it, the less it impacts your life. It’s totally possible to be an athlete. You need to accept that it’s going to be hard, and be able to incorporate that into your life. To me, it’s not a disadvantage, but it’s an opportunity to show people that I can do something that is not expected of me anymore.”
BALLAST FOR THE BOY
Mike Pearce brings some of the toughest minded athletes on the planet to UBC, and as their rowing coach, helps then realize their potential.
Among them are Dohm’s cousins and fellow Vancouver College grads Aaron Lattimer and his older brother Max, the latter who competed for Canada at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Pearce has seen tenacity defined, yet admits Dohm might sit in a class by himself.
“I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a person quite as tough as Harlan,” Pearce begins. “He was unwilling to leave being an athlete behind. He’s like the Terminator. He keeps coming and coming and he doesn’t know how to quit. He’s been on the varsity team and he’s won, and then he had to start again from scratch. He hasn’t cracked the top line-up again, but he is on track.”
All you need to do is listen to way in which Dohm talks about the tenets of his sport to know it has been a friend which has helped him through the tough times.
“There is no other sport like rowing, where you are strapped into a boat with eight other guys,” begins Dohm, who has experienced flare-ups of his disease in mid-race in past years. “You don’t have that option to stop because if you do, there’s eight others who have put in tons of hours to do what you are doing. If you stop, you’re letting them down.
“In rowing there is reliance on one another and that is something that had gotten me through a lot of stuff. It’s the creed of rowers, whatever pain you are feeling, you push it to the side and keep going with the task at hand.”
Adds Pearce: “His will power and his want to be a part of this program has given him the focus to manage his situation.”
And with that, he lives each day, never wavering from his belief that obstacles are actually opportunities.
All of this makes you think that blind luck was never involved and that in the weeks which followed his diagnosis of Crohn’s Disease, that a 12-year-old kid knew he needed some ballast.
He got it the moment he held an oar in his hands.
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