MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — “I thought I was going to die,” he said, holding back tears. “I almost threw in the towel, but I didn’t … I couldn’t.”
On Nov. 28, 2015, Tech. Sgt. Steve Fourman, a Department of Defense Warrior Games athlete, found himself on a temporary duty assignment for the Red Flag aerial combat training exercise at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, when he unexpectedly fell ill with chest pains.
“All of a sudden, I couldn’t breathe,” Fourman said. “I couldn’t do anything, so I was rushed to the emergency room.”
It was there where Fourman, a husband and a father, received the unfortunate diagnosis behind his sudden shortness of breath: he suffered from a rare autoimmune disorder called Secondary Hemophagocytic Lymphohistiocytosis, or HLH, of which there are only about 25 annual cases documented worldwide.
“Basically, all your internal organs shut down at the same time,” Fourman said. “I was told there was no known treatment for this disorder, and it was just a matter of time before I died.”
After being told he would not make it to the next morning, Fourman was medically evacuated to the San Antonio Military Medical Center, Texas, for more expansive examination.
“At this point, they were just monitoring me until I died,” Fourman said. “Obviously, I did not.”
His resolve to survive went further than just the one night.
Two weeks later, having beat the odds, Fourman received another diagnosis that would further test the strength of his character. Not only did he suffer from HLH, he was also diagnosed with T-cell/histiocytic-rich large B-cell lymphoma, a rare form of cancer.
“The doctor explained that the cancer affected less than 1% of the population and had a zero percent survival rate,” Fourman said. “I asked him to find a treatment, so I could move forward with my life.”
Fourman began chemotherapy on Christmas Eve of that same year, quickly losing over 60 pounds in less than a month due to the toll it took on his body.
“My treatments totaled 110 hours of chemo over five consecutive days,” Fourman said. “I went through six rounds of that.”
During one of the sessions at a medical facility near his home in Georgia, Fourman suffered another medical setback as he contracted Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, a bacterium that causes infections in different parts of the body. He then began 17 rounds of antibiotics and 10 months of treatment to overcome this complication.
“From all the treatments and antibiotics, I now have no immune system,” Fourman said. “Anything could be deadly.”
Fourman currently receives immunoglobulin therapy every 28 days, which introduces antibodies into his bloodstream. Without it, common illnesses like the flu or pneumonia could be the catalyst that ends his life.
Despite the adversities, this competitor refuses to live his life in fear and utilizes sports and physical fitness as a method of mental and emotional release.
“They told me to stay out of the gym, but I’m not going to live in a bubble,” Fourman said. “If I end up dying in the gym, I’ll be happy.”
After months of rehabilitation and determination, Fourman was invited to represent the U.S. Air Force in the 2019 DOD Warrior Games.
“There is a zero percent chance that I should be here right now,” Fourman said. “I went from not being able to lift 5-pound dumbbells to benching 315 pounds at the Warrior Games trials.”
Fourman’s journey includes two rare diseases with zero percent survival chances, along with an ever-increasing determination to persevere. In order to carry on, he treats every day as another challenge that he can overcome.
“I’m the only documented patient to survive both (illnesses) at the same time,” Fourman proudly said. “I refuse to accept when people quit around me, so if I did the same thing, I would be letting everybody down.”
Fourman earned a bronze medal in the discus field event of this year’s Warrior Games.
His journey doesn’t stop here as he will continue to defy death, despite insurmountable odds, as he plans to compete in the 2020 Invictus Games in the Netherlands.