Alex Reyes won’t let spinal infection derail UFC dreams: ‘I know the odds are against me’

Even though it’s become the new normal over the past year-and-a-half, it’s still tough for Alex Reyes to talk about.

Reyes understandably has chosen to keep relatively silent – until now.

The UFC lightweight and older brother of Dominick Reyes, Alex hasn’t competed since his promotional debut in September 2017 – a loss suffered at the hands of Mike Perry. The fight was one Reyes took on mere days’ notice – up a weight class, against a then-surging knockout artist.

Reyes was booked for his sophomore UFC outing in March 2018 – a fight against Nasrat Haqparast in London. A full camp was in order this time around. He’d fight at his usual 155-pound weight class.

Perfect. Life seemed good.

After 10 years on the regional scene, Reyes finally settled into where he always hoped to be. His goal shifted from making it to the big show, to proving his worth there. He was enjoying life as a coach, a father, a husband. Everything was going right. But things soon went haywire.

“I was feeling pretty positive about my career and everything going on in my life,” Reyes told MMA Junkie. “I feel like everything was ripped out from under me. Just that feeling of helplessness.”

In the end, he never entered the cage in London.

Like many fighters, Reyes had suffered his fair share of wear-and-tear injuries from all the battles in the gym and cage. A competitor at the highest level, Reyes wanted to find a solution. So he turned to stem cell injections from a company called Genetech.

After the first injection, the pain did not subside. So he got a second one. In the days that followed, Reyes began to notice the pain wasn’t improving – it was actually getting worse.

And worse.

And worse.

Five days later, Reyes couldn’t walk. Something clearly was wrong with him.

“On June 30, I got the injection. By July 4, I couldn’t walk anymore,” Reyes said. “When people say you can’t walk anymore, people say, ‘What do you mean you couldn’t walk?’ I was in excruciating pain to where my body wasn’t stable. I couldn’t even sit down. I couldn’t roll over in bed. I could move my toes and my legs, but the pain in my spine in my lower back was so unstable and inflamed and spasming. It was excruciating.”

* * * *

A living hell

The medical professionals’ assessment deemed this normal. Reyes was told not to worry and sent on his way. But as he progressively deteriorated, even the most passive physician could determine something wasn’t right.

“Talking to the doctors, they were telling me that it’s normal. ‘We did a lot of work. It’s normal.’ But I did this before, and it wasn’t like this. What’s normal?” Reyes said. “I stayed that way for three-and-a-half weeks on a bedpan. They kept telling me, ‘You’re in the 30 percent range where you experience pain for more than two weeks.’ Then I dropped down to ‘the 15 percent,’ and then I dropped down to ‘the 10 percent.’ After six weeks, they’re like, ‘You’re on the one percent.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, God.’ Everything was going wrong.”

So what was the cause of all this agony? After an MRI, Reyes was diagnosed with a rare but serious spinal infection – osteomyelitis. The injection he received was tainted with E. coli, among other nastiness. Even with a fighter-level of tolerance, Reyes’ pain was intolerable.

“As fighters, we know how to push,” Reyes said. “We have tough weight cuts. We have tough practices. … Preparing for MMA fights for five rounds can be grueling. I knew how to push myself. And the whole time, I’m trying to tell myself my body is rebuilding. ‘This is OK. I gotta keep pushing. I gotta keep pushing.’ But, man, it wasn’t getting better.”

The next few weeks were nothing short of a living hell. The pain was bad enough, but the mental and emotional anguish? Brutal.

Unable to function, Reyes lost his independence. He relied on his wife, Rosalie, to help him with everything, including when he had to use a bedpan. She had to take care of him “like an infant.”

“My wife really stuck by me, supported, and took care of me,” Reyes said. “She had to give me sponge baths, because I couldn’t stand or sit in the shower, and she cared for me like an infant. Going from a high level athlete, leader, and provider to having to be cared for like an infant because I couldn’t take care of myself? Mentally, that was extremely hard to accept.”

The mental side of things was unforgiving. While trying to live the life of a normal, functioning person, Reyes couldn’t help but picture where he could be – where he should be. It was heartbreaking.

“Mentally, I feel like the train has left without me,” Reyes said. “Where I could be, right now in the UFC, and where I should be, compared to where I am. That’s the hardest part – trying not to let that get me down.”

But Reyes stuck with his recovery regimen. Even with progress, complications reared their heads when his IV stints began to consistently get blocked with clots.

“I (was) taking tons of pain pills and medicine,” Reyes said. “It was just horrible. Then on top of that, my IV pick line kept getting blood clots. I kept having to go in so they could remove that and take it out. They kept checking for blood clots in my arteries. It was just a mess. I’m still getting drips, but that’s what happened.”

* * * *

 

Adjusting to the new normal

Some of Reyes’ pain subsided through months of IV therapy – five-and-a-half months of three to four infusions a day, to be exact. Despite the decrease in physical distress, Reyes has been told he’ll carry this infection with him for the rest of his life.

“The crazy thing about this is that it never completely goes away,” Reyes said. “The infection in your spine, osteomyelitis – it goes dormant. You’ve just got to pay attention to it even though the infection isn’t active right now. I guess it can come back, and I just have to pay attention to that.”

Reyes still has obstacles to overcome. He still experiences pain as he attempts to build back up to peak athletic form. CBD has helped Reyes get off the pain pills. He’s stretching and strengthening his core through physical therapy.

With no specific finish line for his recovery, keeping a “day-to-day” focus isn’t easy. But he’s keeping an optimistic, positive mindset – which he credits his support group for helping him maintain.

“I’m improving, which I’m blessed and fortunate,” Reyes said. “I still have a lot of support with my close friends and family. It’s really discouraging at times – a helpless feeling. My manager checks up on me every week. Jason House calls and checks in on how I’m doing, asking if there’s anything he can do to help me out.

“… They say ‘to fail to plan is to plan to fail.’ So I’m planning to succeed. I’m setting goals, staying positive and keep pushing towards them as much as I can. That’s the only way I can look at it. If I try to look at it any other way and just wallow and feel sorry for myself, I’m not going to get any better. I’m not going to improve.”

* * * *

Fighting back

Reyes, 33, wasn’t the only one who suffered because of those injections. He’s not sure of the exact number, but has heard as many as 60 others could have been affected.

Despite the conserved effort to sue the company in question, the lawsuit was dropped after Genetech owner Edwin Pinos allegedly fled the country. Now, Reyes hopes to spread awareness for those who were affected but don’t have the same platform.

“I’m not that person looking for people to feel sorry for me,” Reyes said. “At least for other people out there, getting the word out can help others make that decision. I guess for the people who didn’t get to interview or speak about it or didn’t get their stories heard about this guy and how he operated his company, you know?”

Through his entire ordeal, Reyes has promised himself to make it back to where he belongs in the UFC. Perhaps in February or March, but no pressure. His self-belief is what has led him to all of his successes: a black belt, a jiu-jitsu title, two regional titles, and a UFC contract. So why should he change that?

“The possibilities are I know the odds are against me – but there’s nothing that’s stopped me yet completely,” Reyes said. “… God willing, I can get back in there and compete at the highest level. It’s a dream I want to achieve for my students, for my son. Anything is possible with support and belief in yourself, just chasing your dream and a goal. A passion that I have – I still have that.

“I will get back in there and make that walk to the octagon.”

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