Rolf Benirschke wants to thank those who helped him survive illness through the 'Grateful Patient Project'

September 7th marks the second annual National Grateful Patient Day.
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The Grateful Patient Project is sharing patient-to-patient stories for a single purpose — to appreciate the good deeds of others. A mission that began one year ago through the devoted efforts of Rolf Benirschke, a former NFL player and founder of National Grateful Patient Day. September 7th is a special day for patients to recognize the work and care of their doctors, nurses, and family caregivers everywhere. 

The Grateful Patient Project is a community of passionate patients who wish to express their thankfulness. In his own words, Rolf shares his personal story and why he is a grateful patient:

“I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at the beginning of my second season playing in the NFL. I continued to play as my condition worsened, until collapsing on a flight home after our team played against the New England Patriots. When the plane landed, I was taken to the hospital for emergency surgery and would endure a second abdominal surgery a few days later. When I woke up, I had two ostomy bags on my side, was 65 pounds below my playing weight, and spent the next six weeks in the intensive care unit battling sepsis and fighting for my life.

I eventually recovered and returned to play seven more seasons in the NFL, four of those with ostomy bags, and became the 20th player inducted into the San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame.

Chargers kicker Rolf Benirschke, who had been hospitalized, was escorted to midfield by Louie Kelcher for a game coin toss against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 18, 1978.

Chargers kicker Rolf Benirschke, who had been hospitalized, was escorted to midfield by Louie Kelcher for a game coin toss against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 18, 1978.

The illness forced me to move from being bitter to accepting my situation and then figuring out how to get better. In the process, I found out something about myself — that I had more courage, more grit, a greater ability to persevere, and greater creativity than I ever knew I had. I discovered the indomitable spirit that I believe exists in all of us.

I have developed an intense appreciation for life and a gratefulness for family and friends and a greater appreciation for the wonder of things never noticed before. The course of my life is now on a path where I get to encourage, support and speak out on behalf of patients, especially those suffering from Inflammatory Bowel Disease or facing ostomy surgery. I've come to appreciate the technology and innovation that has occurred over the years. When I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis there were not many therapeutic options. However, when I had my ostomy surgery, there were new kinds of appliances that had just been developed that allowed me to return to do what I enjoyed.

A lot of people supported me during this journey. I am grateful for my parents who were there every step of the way. I also had phenomenal doctors, nurses, teammates and our team strength coach, who would not give up on me, even when I gave up on myself countless times. I also can’t forget the thousands of Charger fans who donated blood, sent me cards and letters, and prayed for me.

To celebrate National Grateful Patient Day, I will send a thank you letter to my team strength coach who didn’t give up on me, to the University of California San Diego Health for all the nurses and doctors, and to the San Diego Chargers organization who gave me a chance to play again. I will also express appreciation to my wife for the love and encouragement she has given me for the past 28 years."

Do you have a doctor, nurse, or family member that you would like to thank today?