Courage of Bingham girl lifts spirits of her basketball teammates
Monday, January 12, 2004
Deseret Morning News
Like most teenagers, Sarah Hunter longed for warm, summer days as the end of her junior year approached.
Not because she wanted to sleep late or lie in the sun but because she hoped to work hard enough in the summer months to earn a starting spot on the Bingham High girls basketball team the following fall — her senior year.
Then the numbness started.
First, it was just her foot. It was more an annoyance than a problem, so she just kept going to weight training class and ignored it. Then the numbness moved up her leg and into her hip.
"Then one day I could barely walk," she said. "I was walking like I was drunk."
Doctors thought it was a pinched nerve and sent her to a chiropractor. She laughs about that now.
Four MRIs and two months later, the 17-year-old South Jordan girl was given a diagnosis that made her mother weep.
"When they said I had multiple sclerosis, both my mom and grandma started crying," she said.
With MS, there is scattered and sometimes slow demyelination of the central nervous system. The myelin is like an insulation around the body's nervous system, and it erodes at varying speeds, causing short circuits that lead to muscular and neurological problems.
"They couldn't even talk," she said of the diagnosis. "I needed someone to tell me it would be OK."
That someone turned out to be herself.
She found out on July 1 and the next day went to the high school where her teammates were participating in a summer basketball camp.
When Hunter walked into the gymnasium, coach Rand Rasmussen, a notorious hard guy, couldn't contain a smile.
"She just comes in and you light up," he said. "She's just a great girl. I mean, her nickname is 'Princess.'
"Then she said, 'Coach, I have MS,' and her eyes well up with tears, and mine fill with tears. I was tongue-tied. I couldn't think of anything to say, which is unusual for me. All I could think about is why is this happening to this young, beautiful girl? She's at the beginning of her life. Why not me? I'm older and I've lived life. She's just starting out."
After Hunter left, Rasmussen called his team together and told them about Hunter's disease. Most of them were familiar with the name but not what it meant. They would all become much more familiar with MS and its treatments in the months that followed. But the most important lesson they'd learn wasn't about science but determination and heart.
"Where she's really helped us this year," Rasmussen said, "is that we all have our days when we're feeling down. We all have bad days. But no matter what we have to deal with, these girls know it's nothing compared to what Sarah deals with. And she never complains. Don't whine about your toenail hurting when she works hard and runs the sprints."
Plans of playing varsity basketball were put on hold while doctors tried to figure out how to best treat Hunter. Three days of intravenous drugs didn't seem to help.
"I wasn't feeling any better," she said.
But slowly, she began to regain some control over her limbs, and doctors offered her several options for treatment.
She chose a once-a-week shot of steroids that she takes on Saturday night.
"It makes me feel like I have the flu," she said. "I didn't know if I'd be able to play basketball. I didn't know the treatment would work so well."
In fact, to watch Hunter banging under the basket for a rebound, one would never know that just three months ago she could barely walk. She said she's never asked "why me?" and never felt picked on or jinxed. She said there was only one moment she felt sad about how her life has changed in the past six months.
"The first game of the season was hard," she said. "Watching everyone else play and be successful, and knowing that I didn't get to — that was hard."
That was the moment she realized her senior year would not be what she'd dreamed it would be.
"This is a very different year than I planned on," she said. "I thought I would start because I planned on working really hard. But I couldn't run, and sometimes walking was hard. This is the hardest thing I've ever had to do."
Hunter, however, realized sitting on the bench in that first game that her role wouldn't be leading scorer or best rebounder. Instead, it would be something more intangible.
"I realized I could be a good influence on my teammates," she said. "You never know who else is having a bad day, so I try never to let how I feel show."
Her teammates cannot name the drug Hunter takes each week, but they can name all kinds of ways she helps make their lives better.
"She's my hero," said Jenni Wright, a junior and team captain. "She has a lot of courage, and she never gives up."
Adds junior Kris Hymas: "You don't expect things like that to happen to people so young. It was really scary. She's a huge part of our team. She brings a lot of emotion. She's so crazy and hyper, and she gets us all happy before practices and games. She really helps us out a lot emotionally."
The team tries to repay Hunter by treating her just like one of the girls. The honor student and student body officer said she's received a lot of support from her family. Her mother, Leesa, injects her with the steroid each Saturday, and her father, Todd, provides her with the positive attitude.
"He's my biggest fan," Hunter said. "His attitude toward life is just
keep working hard and don't have any regrets. I don't want MS to be an
Copyright © 2004, Deseret News Publishing Company