I'm coming out

posted by MsAkiba, a Women Talk Sports blogger
Friday, November 6, 2009 at 8:00pm EST

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I'm coming OUT... I have this secret, and now is the time I feel the need to come out with it! We all are born a little different, no judgment please, it's hard enough to deal with it as is, without people looking at me sideways. So back in high school, something always sat deep within, I could never find the words to articulate or simplify what was going on with me, but it was pretty painful.

It wasn't until college that it hit me, I was tested and discovered that I am a carrier of sickle cell anemia, but I don't actually have the disease itself. It was then that doctors informed me that, "you're fine, you're just a carrier, just don't marry a carrier and you have a natural immunity to malaria".

They could NOT have been any more... WRONG! Every year during fall training, I would catch these excruciating charlie horses (cramps) towards the end of my workouts, always resulting in my coach running down to see why I was laying down on the track. This was followed by them being in shock by how my muscle looks as though it was going to burst through my skin. After they rubbed and stretched it out, as always I was determined to complete my workout, but they ALWAYS told me "Akiba, you need to eat more bananas". They linked my condition to a potassium deficit, though I've never been low on potassium. So from the ages of 13-28, I was told to eat more bananas. Finally I snapped, "I swear if you people tell me to eat one more GOT DAMN BANANA...it's deeper than a DAMN BANANA, I'M NOT EATING ANOTHER BANANA...I'M DONE WITH IT...NO BANANAS."

I remember one incident after a very intense workout, I was getting into my truck, and I felt the worst spasm that began in my left foot, then traveled through my calf, quad, left side of my abs, neck and ended in my jaw. I dropped and blacked out and laid there on the floor of the parking structure at SDSU for 15 minutes. No one was in sight, then finally someone approached me, to ask if I was OK. I replied "Yup, I will be thank you". I laid there 10 minutes, got up, drove to the OTC and ate a shit load of bananas and drank water.

A few months before that, we went on a "team building" hike to Yosemite to hike Half Dome - a six hour hike, up more than 4,000 ft in elevation. With no preparation, it could have been disastrous for me. It nearly was. I caught somewhere 7-9 charlie horses between my calf, quad and hammy. I finally got to the rock we were suppose to climb. I was nervous, cause plenty have died during this part of the hike and my thoughts were "GOD, you have brought me this far, I've pushed through, please don't let me cramp up on this part, at least wait until I get to the top". Obviously HE agreed, cause as soon as I got to the top, I felt like I was shot with a shot gun in my calf. While others recovered from that hike in a day or two, it took me 7-9 days.

Another "team building" exercise went did was Navy Seal training, which started off fun. I breezed through the intense obstacle course, with no problem. But as soon as we we had to involve the ocean, my body locked up on me something terrible, again the crap paralyzed my entire left side, including my jaw. I could not control my shakes, my body nearly shut down...."Now I've gone through several experiences like this and all you can tell me is to eat a DAMN BANANA".

One and a half years ago I got blood work done and once the lab work was back. DOC asked, "Were you sick when you gave blood? Do you have liver function problems? "

"No. Why"?

"Your CK level is 2000+ near 3,000" When asked what it's supposed to be? he said "250 at the most. You are taking the next four days off, completely." I laughed and said "yeah right, talk to my slave driver about that one".

Needless to say I had the next six days off (my blood cells were completely out of whack). Yet they still didn't link the two, because up until the death of several NFL and NCAA football players, those who are carriers of the sickle cell trait were thought NOT to be at risk of symptoms of sickle cell, but indeed we are.

The NCAA has now recommended schools to test for the trait, and I pray that all professional sports follow. As an athlete, we push through the point of excruciating pain because it is expected, we don't question it. When our bodies shut down, our minds and hearts tell us to go harder...As an athlete who has sickle cell trait, this can mean death, and it has meant death for some. As of last year, I became tuned into my body, knowing when something is "NOT RIGHT", I will take the day off. Though some have teased, asking why are you taking the day off...ooh you're getting soft....why do you always cramp...why do you always get hurt?

I normally shrug off negative comments or say something sarcastic, but the reality is that my body is a little different. When I don't listen, I get hurt. I had to educate myself about the sickle cell disease itself, to understand what was going on with my body. Recently the Doc has taken the time to educate me about those who are carriers, so we are going to be working closely with one another, to prevent the things I've experienced in the past.

Ryan Clark of the Pittsburgh steelers (one of my favorite players) shared his story on ESPN this morning.  So the debate is whether he should play Sunday in Denver? He nearly lost his life there last time, because high elevation causes his blood cells to sickle...it is a potentially dangerous situation for him. As a fan yes I want him to play, As a nurturing woman who likes him as a person, I say absolutely not, but as an athlete and someone who really can relate to his situation, I can't be a hypocrite. I've experienced competing in Northern Arizona and BYU, with pretty bad outcomes, but no where near as life threatening as his were.

This is something I will have to face again in February at USA Indoor Championships, because they have moved from Boston to New Mexico. I am definitely going to have to set a game plan with the Doctors and Medical staff here, to make this a less painful experience that I've had in the past. But I will compete.

Eventually I hope to shed more light on the situation. Sharing personal stories about this disease may help other athletes who are going though similar experiences. I'd especially like to educate coaches, because some athletes may not even know they are carriers until it is too late. So now that I am aware that I am just not immune to malaria...I can train properly, use preventive measures and stop eating all them damn BANANAS...


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There are 4 comments on this post. Join the discussion!

aggyrun says:

This is an amazing article! I had a friend in high school who was a carrier of the trait and after a hard football practice, ended up in the hospital, and never could play sports again. I don't know if they ever figured out what was wrong with him (this was 10 years ago). Thanks for 'coming out' and sharing your experience!

Saturday, November 7, 2009 at 1:01pm EST

anngaff says:

It's so tough as an athlete because you grow up with the mentality that being tough at all costs is heroic but that can really be a dangerous attitude and can cause the athlete to struggle for years until admitting there is a real problem and getting it fixed. This results in a lot of heartache for the athlete!

So glad that you have figured out the problem, Akiba, and hopefully your experience will help other athletes so they don't have to learn the hard way.

Saturday, November 7, 2009 at 4:08pm EST

megankillian says:

Thanks for sharing!! I can't believe how long it took for the docs to figure it out. Go get 'em !

Sunday, November 8, 2009 at 6:54pm EST

MsAkiba says:

Thank you!
As a huge Steelers fan, I watched the vs. Broncos, sadden because one of my favorite players was not able to play because of this. It definitely made me question USA Indoor Championships in Feb. Suddenly traveling to Boston, where it had been for the last 5 years, doesn't seem so bad, even if I do get snowed in. I received many questions from readers and I will attempt to answer them all. what took me so long to talk about it? I knew I had the trait, but was told I would be symptom free cause I was a carrier only. How long have I known? 11-12 years. What happens to me when I compete in high altitude training? pain, migraines, intense cramps, shortness of breath ( I thought It was my asthma), days to recover. How did it affect me as a child? I don't know, I was a sickly kid, so that could have been the cause. Will I compete at USA Indoor championships? YES. How do I control it? The med staff are aware of it, they educate me, and wont hesitate to give me that "mom" look, if I push too far. Coaches will call it quits if Im too stubborn not to.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009 at 3:57am EST

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