SARATOGA -- Shoham Das, born with "half a heart" 11 years ago, completed another step in his improbable young journey Saturday by kicking a board in half, battling with sticks and grappling with a sparring partner in his goal to obtain a first-degree black belt in mixed martial arts.
With his nervous mother monitoring Shoham's oxygen levels and intake of glucose at West Valley College, the fifth-grader at San Jose's Country Lane Elementary School underwent the same test of mixed martial arts skills as other students at Ernie Reyes West Coast Martial Arts Schools. All were trying to move up another level.
Asked why he likes mixed martial arts, Shoham said, "It's very important to me. It makes my muscles strong." But more than an hour into his two-hour test, Shoham grew visibly fatigued several times and was forced to sit down once while the other students continued sparring.
Minutes later, however, he flashed a thumbs-up when asked whether he could continue.
During a break in which Shoham had an ice pack applied to the back of his neck, Shoham's head instructor, Joao Santana, said Shoham was being graded on his skill level and not on his endurance.
It will be another week or so before Shoham finds out whether his scores from Saturday's test were good enough to elevate him from a red-black belt to first-degree black belt. He and other students who might have fallen short will then have a month to work on any skills and have a chance to improve their scores.
Just getting to Saturday's test once seemed impossible for a 4-foot, 8-inch, 67-pound boy who was born at Stanford Medical Center with a rare congenital heart condition.
By the time he was 4, Shoham had undergone three open-heart surgeries. And he continues to endure invasive heart procedures to monitor his progress.
"His condition is very rare," said Shoham's primary pediatrician, Dr. Aimee Blaustein of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. "He and his mom say he was born with half-a-heart. He only has one right ventricle instead of two, and he doesn't have fully oxygenated blood traveling to his tissues like the rest of us." Asked about Shoham's initial prognosis, Blaustein delicately said, "When he was born, it was expected he would not have a normal life expectancy."
Shoham is working on a book about his condition entitled, "I Know How It Feels." On Saturday, as crews of first responders stood by, a few things set Shoham apart from the 361 other students trying to move up to another belt degree: less aggressive contact with his sparring partner, 13-year-old Enrique Neyra of Campbell; a glowing orange band that Shoham wore on his right biceps that let instructors know he has a medical condition; and a mother who hovered around with a ready supply of glucose and coconut water for energy and an oximeter to monitor Shoham's oxygen levels.
In the Campbell facility where he trains, Shoham has been an inspiration and role model, his instructors said.
Last month, they were pleasantly surprised when they took Shoham into the office after he grew fatigued during a training workout.
"He said, 'Sir, I know I'm finished, but I can still go out there and be with my team,'" said Tony Thompson, who co-founded the network of mixed martial arts with its namesake, Ernie Reyes, whose son starred in the Ninja Turtle movies.
"He's got that attitude," Thompson said of Shoham.
Santana, who's worked with Shoham for four years, called him mature beyond his years.
"He's a sharp kid and role model for the other kids who leads by example," Santana said. "He doesn't let it (his heart condition) get him down at all." When he was younger, Shoham always had a seemingly endless supply of energy and would press his face to the window whenever he passed a martial arts studio, said his mother, Paromita Das.
"He trains six days a week and it's very vigorous," she said. "His doctors said he could do it as long as he listened to his body." All of the exercise has helped Shoham's physical and emotional development, said Dr. Blaustein, who believes his attitude could have a positive impact on other children born with serious medical conditions.
"Especially for kids, it can be easy to get very down if you have to live a life that's very different," Blaustein said. "But Shoham has demonstrated that he can live a full life and overcome challenges. I'm sure there are other kids who will be inspired. It inspires me."
Contact Dan Nakaso at 408-271-3648.