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River Hill's Friedman fundraising for a cure

Jake Friedman, 17, a second team all-county boys lacrosse player as a junior at River Hill last spring, poses for a photo wearing a shirt he designed to raise money for the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America. Friedman was diagnosed with Crohn's disease in 2014.
Jake Friedman, 17, a second team all-county boys lacrosse player as a junior at River Hill last spring, poses for a photo wearing a shirt he designed to raise money for the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America. Friedman was diagnosed with Crohn's disease in 2014. (Steve Ruark / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

It all started at the beginning of his sophomore year.

Jake Friedman, a three-sport athlete as a freshman at River Hill, wasn't feeling like himself. He was losing weight, suffering from "brutal" fatigue and excruciating stomachaches, and his cross country times had dropped from the year before.

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"I knew something had to be wrong," Friedman said.

Over the next several months, he saw several doctors and had two colonoscopies in the search for a diagnosis.

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"It was kind of scary having this mystery problem, and the main thing was the fatigue," he said. "I couldn't function as well when I was exercising, running cross country, playing lacrosse during the fall or even into the spring when I knew what I had."

About seven months after his first symptoms, Friedman, then 15 years old, was diagnosed in April 2014 with Crohn's Disease, which has no known cause or cure.

"I was kind of confused," he said. "I didn't know much about the disease, and I already have life-threatening food allergies so that was another medical issue I had to deal with. I was like, 'something else can't be happening.'"

"I think I was more scared than he was," said his mother, Rosanne Bloom. "He was going to school every day, he would text me saying he was having severe stomachaches, internal bleeding ... he went to all his practices, played in all his games, socialized, he never missed a beat. He hasn't had the easiest life medically, but he's kind of known this life and he rolls with it. He takes the negative and turns it into a positive."

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The official diagnosis was just the beginning for Friedman.

He opted against the initial treatment plan because of how it would affect his immune system. But eventually, after he and his family spent several months doing research and getting different opinions, it was decided that he would take on an unusual course of treatment — to completely overhaul his diet, one that is "far from the diet of an average teenager."

Friedman is on a diet free of all sugar, processed foods and carbohydrates. The first six months consisted solely of fruits, vegetables and grass-fed organic meats.

"Not only does that help Crohn's Disease, it makes you a healthier person," he said.

That strict diet, combined with exercise, acupuncture and supplements, has allowed him to be almost completely symptom-free.

"I think it's amazing that Jake chose to do research on his own and chose to go on this diet. It wasn't just coming from his father and me. He was a willing participant," Bloom said. "I think he learned the power that food has, and to use food as medicine."

When Friedman was a sophomore and varsity starter on the lacrosse team, coach Keith Gonsouland noticed he was laboring during practices, but "you would never know by the way he plays" in games.

Gonsouland says the disease hasn't been an issue for Friedman on the field.

"He just has an ability to dig down and find more within himself. That's really what makes him such a special player," Gonsouland said. "There are times where you see he's tired, but he can always find more in there. I think that is from dealing with Crohn's and playing fatigued. ... He's able to compartmentalize how he's feeling, and is able to focus on the task at hand. He's able to do that as well as any player I've had. He's mentally tough."

Friedman had a breakout season this spring, as he finished second on the team in goals and points with 28 and 48, respectively. His efforts earned him a spot on the all-county second team.

In the state semifinal game against Middletown, he scored three of his four goals in a stretch where River Hill turned a 7-6 deficit into an 11-7 lead midway through the third quarter on the way to a victory.

Friedman knows that not everyone with Crohn's is as fortunate as he. After getting his symptoms under control, he started thinking about what he could do to help others with the disease.

"A lot of people are not doing as well as I am, and that's just Crohn's — it's different for everyone. It can be very debilitating, but if it's under control it might not be horrible. I knew there were other people suffering, so I wanted to give back to them," he said. "So I started thinking of ways to give back and raise money to donate to the CCFA, which is the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America. So I thought about T-shirts — it was the first idea that popped in my head."

The shirt, which he designed himself and started selling May 1, features his initials, "JF", in Maryland colors on the front, and says "Just Fight For a Cure" on the back. He sells them for $18 apiece, and they cost him $9.54 to make.

As of July 15, Friedman had sold approximately 120 shirts and profited about $1,100 to donate to the CCFA in hopes of finding a cure. He is working on a website to make it easier to sell his shirts, and he recently established "JF for a Cure" as a 501(c)(3) to officially become a nonprofit organization. To buy a shirt, email JFforacure@gmail.com.

He started selling them to close friends, then he spread the word through social media. The shirts have sold in multiple states, including California, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and he even received an order from Brazil.

"He's one tough cookie. He really persevered through the whole year, and (the T-shirts) are amazing," Bloom said. "I'm really proud of him for taking it to the next level. ... He's done amazing in school and sports. He's really taken it and run with it."

Friedman is preparing for the Baltimore half-marathon on Oct. 17, and he continues to sell shirts and spread the word. He hopes to take the nonprofit organization with him to college, where he has aspirations of going to medical school to become a gastroenterologist.

"I don't want to stop," he said. "I want to keep fundraising as much as possible, and hopefully one day I will help contribute to finding a cure for Crohn's Disease."

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