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Friday, December 10, 2010
Second chance at sport

By Rebecca Gray
ESPN HoopGurlz

Dr. Michael J. Ackerman
The author (center) with the Mayo clinic specialist, Dr. Michael J. Ackerman (left), who helped provide her second lease on a basketball life.

"We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations."
-- Charles R. Swindoll

It finally is that time of the year when you can sit down and find a college basketball game on television virtually every night. I live for this time of year because I live for the game and there is nothing better than sitting down to a good ball game after a long day of classes. You work all summer and preseason to get to the point where you get to put on a jersey and play for your school. It is an exciting feeling and one that cannot be duplicated by any other situation in my life. As good as it feels to suit up and prepare for a game it feels that much worse when you are told you cannot play because of an injury.

Rebecca Gray and her father, Todd
Rebecca Gray and her father, Todd (left), had a lot to celebrate after their trip to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Injuries are a common element when it comes to playing basketball -- or any sport, for that matter. Sometimes you cannot prevent them and other times there are exercises that can help you avoid getting hurt in the first place. I have certainly seen my share of injuries in my career. I've had everything from sprained ankles, a few broken nose incidents, dislocated shoulders, stress fractures in my foot, concussions, a couple of surgeries, and some knee issues.

Unfortunately, my latest injury -- a torn medial collateral ligament, which is located on the inside of the knee -- has already benched me for two weeks so far. There might be some other underlying injuries in my knee so I will be getting an MRI over Christmas break to figure out what needs to be done. With unexpected injuries that could happen at any time, you have to stay mentally tough and never give up on your rehab. Although I have had my share of setbacks, nothing compares to two years ago when I was challenged to the fullest because I almost lost the game of basketball forever.

It was a 6:30 a.m. preseason conditioning session and it seemed normal just like all of the other sessions we had completed during my first year at Kentucky. We were running sprints and on this particular morning we were running sets of five up-and-backs. I had completed my first two sets and I was getting ready to start my final set to finish my workout. I took off and went down and back four times feeling fine and then it hit me as I approached the free-throw line. I felt dizzy and my heart felt it was going to jump out of my chest as I hit the baseline to turn around and finish. My foot touched the line and as I turned and I don't remember anything after that. I had collapsed in mid-sprint.

Paramedics were all around when I regained consciousness and I was very confused at what had just happened. The paramedics got me into the ambulance and that's when I knew something wrong had happened. Little did I know I was going living on an emotional rollercoaster for the next six months.

I arrived at the hospital and immediately had IVs shoved in my arm and had several kinds of physical examinations. After about three hours in emergency they still had not found anything that presented a red flag and that's when the cardiologist came into the room. They explained to me that all of my other tests -- my CAT scan, spinal tap, etc. -- had come back negative but they were concerned with my blood work. He explained that he thought the QT intervals (the measure of electrical pulses) in my heart were running a little on the high side and that they wanted to test further.

It was about three weeks later when my cardiologist told me that I had been diagnosed with Long QT syndrome. Long QT syndrome has to do with the electrical pumping and recharging of the heart. In a nutshell, my heart was not getting enough of a rest period between each pump and that is a very dangerous thing to mess with. He told me that I would never be able to get my heart rate up again and that I would have to start on a drug called Toprol, which would block any kind of adrenaline to my heart. As he was telling me everything I would not be able to do again, I sat there like I was in a bad dream and just tried to absorb what he was telling me. The only thing I had ever known was just taken away from me and I thought I had lost the game forever.

After I received that news, I tried to think realistically. I was not going to be pessimistic because I was still alive and basketball is just a game. Although I tried to keep my head up, it was much more than a game that I had lost; it was a complete lifestyle change. I could not go swimming because it could trigger my heart and set it into a dysrhythmia, I could not feel an adrenaline rush because of the medicine and the only two sports I would be able to play were golf and bowling. I felt hopeless and like I had lost my identity while I sat around and waited for some miracle to happen that would take this disease away. It was a lot to take in at one time, but when you have a medical diagnosis as serious as Long QT syndrome, it is usually a good idea to get a second opinion. So, that is what I decided to do and I chose the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., because it is the best of the best.

Rebecca Gray tatoo
In celebration of a diagnosis that allowed her to play basketball again, Rebecca Gray got this tatoo on her inner ankle to symbolize her "second chance to fly."
The Mayo Clinic is well known for its expertise in almost every medical aspect of the body and especially the heart. The earliest date I could get into the clinic was the middle of January, which meant I was forced to sit and watch everything for the next four and a half months. It was a long wait because my future was in the hands of a genetic blood test and some more precision testing in Minnesota. Every day seemed to be a battle of different feelings because I would get down on myself because I could potentially lose a lot, but then I would pull myself together and stay strong because I am lucky enough to be alive. I had to watch everything I did during that four-month span. My family bought a Wii for Christmas and it is all about moving your body and getting into the games physically. I can remember my mom making me stop right in the middle of boxing because she could tell I was starting to sweat a little bit, which meant my heart rate was going up. Let's just say it was an all-around scary experience because I was afraid of almost everything but most of all, the unknown.

When January came around I was so excited to get up there and find out what was going on. I am a very active person and being forced to literally sit on the sidelines killed my spirit. I was hoping for a change. The anticipation was at an all-time high, but my dad and I bundled up and got on the plane headed to Rochester. I have never experienced any kind of cold weather below zero, but the four days we were there it was an average of 30 degrees. Each day was filled with things to do and places to be in the clinic. We did a bunch of testing and received the results of all the tests on the second-to-last day of our stay. I remember walking into the office and being pretty nervous about what the doctor was going to tell us. He walked through all of my family history and all of the tests that not only UK had done, but what we had just finished that week. After an hour of explanations and clarification about all of the results, I was cleared to play again because I had been misdiagnosed. Although I potentially had higher QT intervals, it was most likely a mysterious case of dehydration and I was free to go.

My dad and I walked out of the Mayo Clinic doing cartwheels with very large smiles on our faces. It was just an amazing feeling to be free of all worries and second thoughts about any and everything. I onlyk thank my parents and family members for helping me out through that whole process. My family serves as my rock and I could never replace them! I was given a second chance and a new outlook on my life and how I wanted to live it. When I got home, I went got a tattoo on my inner ankle that is a bumblebee spinning a basketball on its finger. "Beezy," as I call him, symbolizes my second chance to fly and reminds me every day to live my life without regrets.

This experience has allowed me to mature and grow into the person I am today because it has made everything in my life so real. Life is a precious and fragile entity. You never know when the things you love the most could be taken away; it has really put a lot into perspective. You have to learn from the past, live for the future, have no regrets and show no fear. That is how I live my life and I am blessed to be here, doing what I love and enjoy every day, one day at a time.

"Life is a gift, and it offers us the privilege, opportunity, and responsibility to give something back by becoming more."
-- Anthony Robbins

Until next time, stay cool and keep ballin' yall!

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Rebecca Gray is an intern for ESPN HoopGurlz. She previously wrote a column for the website about her experiences as a freshman on basketball scholarship at the University of North Carolina. She transferred to and played at Kentucky and now plays basketball and golf at Union College. A 5-foot-10, sharp-shooting guard out of Georgetown, Ky., Gray was named Miss Basketball in the state of Kentucky after averaging 25.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.1 steals and 4.8 assists during her senior season at Scott County High School. She can be contacted at rebecca@hoopgurlz.com.