Instead of lining up as a linebacker on Sundays in the National Football League (NFL), the 25-year-old Westerhaus is an investment banking analyst and founder of a nonprofit foundation.
“My life has gone in a different direction,” says Westerhaus, who now lives in Minneapolis. “But you have to take what comes to you, give it your all and be grateful along the way.”
The decision to change paths was beyond his control. As a football-obsessed youth growing up in Chanhassen, Westerhaus dreamed of NFL glory. He was so charmed with the sport he slept with a football helmet on his head. With each passing football season, the dream seemed more tangible, bolstered by hard work, athletic ability and a strong body—at his peak, his 6-foot-3-inch frame was packed with 235 pounds.
A standout middle linebacker and tight end at Holy Family Catholic High School in Victoria, Westerhaus was voted Minnesota’s Mr. Football in 2010. Division 1 schools came calling, and he signed with the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.
But, those NFL dreams were sidelined permanently after a severe bout of ulcerative colitis, a chronic inflammation of the large intestine. It occurs as a result of an abnormal response to the body’s immune system, according to the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America. His approximately one and a half year battle with the inflammatory bowel disease sacked his football dreams, which stung. “I was so passionate about that game, and to not end on your terms, it’s challenging,” he says.
But it didn't break him. Not even close. Now healthy, Westerhaus is tackling a new passion close to his heart—funding research, finding cures and supporting regenerative therapies for conditions potentially linked to microbiota through his Eden Prairie–based foundation, Achieving Cures Together. “I wanted to find a way to give back to others, and so people won’t suffer as I did,” he says.
Those who know Westerhaus say they never doubted he would overcome the challenges life tossed at him. “He’s got great fortitude,” says Dave Hopkins, Westerhaus’ football coach at Holy Family. “That’s what comes to mind when I think of him.” Holy Family’s principal Kathleen Brown says, “Peter is unflappable. He just picks himself up and moves forward.”
Alexander Khoruts, M.D., professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota, calls Westerhaus’ reasons for starting his foundation “absolutely pure and idealistic.”
“Somehow he emerged [from his health crisis] with a bigger mission,” Dr. Khoruts says. “He wants to do some good for the world. And whatever energy he had that was focused on football is now focused on this particular mission.”
‘Skin and Bones'
Not long after committing to the Gophers, Westerhaus was struck in the head by a falling boulder while hiking in the Grand Canyon in March 2011. He almost died, sustaining a severe concussion and skull fracture. It nearly ended his football career, but Westerhaus never gave up, training tirelessly. He redshirted during his freshman year in the fall, but he practiced with the team in the spring, with an eye on playing his sophomore year.
But, before the 2012 season began, Westerhaus had diarrhea and blood in his stool. His initial mild diagnosis of ulcerative colitis turned “titanic” as Dr. Khoruts describes it. Westerhaus dropped to 148 pounds. “My life was a living hell at that point,” he says. "I was skin and bones. I couldn’t move. I could barely get out of a chair. I was just living in constant pain.”
After many treatments failed to control his symptoms, Westerhaus connected with Dr. Khoruts, who was transplanting stool from donors in hopes “those microbes would regenerate and bring down my inflammation,” Westerhaus says.
“I was so sick and willing to try anything,” says Westerhaus, who left school and came back home to Chanhassen during his illness. “From that, I saw a lot of healing and potential.”
The disease had severely inflamed his large intestine. The treatment helped, but he ended up having it removed in 2014. He lived with an ileostomy bag for nine months, before more surgeries reconnected his digestive tract.
Ultimately, the surgeries were successful, allowing Westerhaus to pass stool normally. No treatment to cure ulcerative colitis exists, but he doesn’t have it anymore since he no longer has a large intestine. “You never want to lose a major organ, especially when you’re 22,” he says. “But, it gave me my life back.”
Westerhaus says it’s hard to determine what (if any) correlation the Grand Canyon accident had with the ulcerative colitis. “We had some doctors say the two incidents are probably connected,” he says. “But, you know how doctors are, they can’t say for sure without knowing definitively. The timing of when I was hit—and put on heavy antibiotics—they think that could have thrown something off.”
Graduating with a finance degree from the U of M’s Carlson School of Management in 2016, Westerhaus put his degree aside for a year to get Achieving Cures Together off the ground. He sees a lot of potential in what the foundation can do to “progress cures”—funding research and exploring alternative natural therapies focused on ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, obesity, diabetes, allergic diseases and autism.
“To keep progressing that research is really what our hope and goal is,” Westerhaus says. “And we’re not far from aiding and helping people in many regards. We’re working closely with the University of Minnesota in their Microbiota Therapeutics Program (MTP). They're pioneers in the field.”
For instance, the foundation is helping that program provide an oral capsule gut-microbe product at no cost for people with recurring Clostridium difficile (C. diff), a bacterium inflammation of the colon. “They’re able to take this capsule of the fecal material of those microbes and wipe out their infection,” Westerhaus says. “The last time I talked to the doctors, it’s helped over 100 people. That’s humbling to know.”
Dr. Khoruts, the medical director of MTP, believes there are more cures like that in “our bodies.” “He’s focused on the power of healing that exists within us, what nature gives,” Dr. Khoruts says of Westerhaus. “But it’s really at a disadvantage when it comes to drug development in this country because it’s something that nature provides, and it’s difficult to have intellectual property on it, making it hard to commercialize. And yet for certain things, the most potent cures are already there.”
Westerhaus takes life one-day-at-time, thankful for good health. He learned that in the midst of his struggles. “In some instances, I was living one hour at a time,” he says. “To get to the next hour was all I could do. Looking back on that, it feels like a long time ago. It’s not, but it feels that way. I’ve come a long way. Not a day goes by that I don’t realize how blessed I am.”
Westerhaus is enjoying his new path and the opportunities he finds along the way. “Between my job, Achieving Cures Together and an occasional workout, life’s busy,” he says. "But it's good."
Westerhaus has worked as an investment banking analyst at Lake Street Capital Markets in Minneapolis since May 2017. He recently moved from his sister's townhouse in Plymouth to an apartment a short walk from his office. “I like challenges every day I go to work,” he says. “That's why I enjoy investment banking. It's fast-paced, and you get exposure to a lot of cool opportunities.”
Despite not having a large intestine, Westerhaus can do most of what he did before he became ill. “I go to the bathroom more than most people do,” he says. “But, it’s nothing I can’t handle. It’s a lot better than 30 times a day like I was going. Otherwise, though, I’m super healthy. I can eat everything except for a select few foods.”
Westerhaus competed in a triathlon and a half-marathon. He even plays in an intramural flag football league. “He likes to be physically active,” says Hopkins, who stays in contact with Westerhaus. "That part of his life was hindered a bit for a long time. But now he’s starting to push his limits again like he always had when he could go full bore in football.”
Though he’s on his own, one thing hasn’t changed—a call or text from his mom, making sure he's eating properly. “She was always good with that when I was trying to gain weight for football,” he says. “And she still is now because she knows that, when I get busy, that can easily get cut out. I do have to take care of my health first and foremost.” Westerhaus gives credit to his parents, Jon and Sue, family members and friends, who were there when he needed them the most.
Though tested, his faith is strong. His passion for helping people feel as good as he does is formidable, too. “Through all the struggles, I kept telling myself there's a bigger picture playing out,” he says. “It keeps you going. There are a lot of people struggling out there. Hopefully, they can find in their life some good that can come out of it.”