Elite prospect battles rare disease
SEATTLE -- On a weekend when many high school students were preparing for their futures, Katie Collier was fighting for hers.
The 6-foot-3 nationally ranked girls' basketball star had been scheduled to take the SAT exam, but instead she was prone in a hospital bed, coming to grips with a recent diagnosis of a rare form of leukemia. The diagnosis had landed her on the very same campus, the University of Washington, where a week earlier while on an official visit she began a potentially deadly roller-coaster ride at the UW Medical Center.
Collier now is a week into a breakthrough chemotherapy treatment that is expected to overcome her disease. The prognosis is so promising, Collier, the No. 21 prospect in the 2012 class by ESPN HoopGurlz, expects to accept a scholarship offer from one of her finalists, Gonzaga, UCLA or Washington, before the early signing period for national letters of intent, Nov. 9-15.
"I'll make a verbal at least," Collier said.
The senior at Seattle Christian School (SeaTac, Wash.) was on her official visit at Washington on Sept. 24 when the first signs emerged that something was wrong.
"I was rooming with Heather [Corral]," Collier said. "Poor girl, she was probably freaking out.
"I woke up and there was blood on my pillows. I was thinking, 'Yeah this is not normal, not good.' My first thought was I was coughing up blood from my lungs or something."
Collier called her mother, who already was at a Saturday morning tailgate party that preceded the Huskies' football game against Cal later that day. Since her parents were at the tailgate, Collier decided to hop in the car of Washington sophomore Mercedes Wetmore with junior Jeneva Anderson and Corral.
"I was so caught up in trying to get the recruits where they needed to be with the Saturday football game going on that I didn't realize Katie was feeling very sick until she told me she was about to pass out," Wetmore said.
Startled, Wetmore called one of the team's assistant coaches, Kevin Morrison, to reach Collier's parents. Collier began to cough up blood.
The Collier family left the visit to return home, approximately 30 miles south of campus. Collier didn't want to go to the local urgent care facility at that time, even writing off her bleeding gums to new toothpaste. Exhausted, she took a four-and-a-half-hour nap. "I didn't think it was that big of a deal," Collier said.
Still bleeding from her gums when she woke up later that evening, Collier was taken to the emergency room at a nearby hospital. After she was transferred to the UW Medical Center, further testing led to the diagnosis of acute promyelocytic leukemia, which is a rare form of another rare form of leukemia, acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a cancer that starts inside bone marrow, the soft tissue inside bones that helps form blood cells.
"We were all obviously emotional," Collier said of receiving the news. "I was just like, 'OK.' I don't think I cried that much."
Her mother, Ann Collier, said, "She was very calm."
The head coaches of Collier's finalists -- Gonzaga's Kelly Graves, UCLA's Cori Close and Washington's Kevin McGuff -- have all assured her family they would honor their scholarship offers.
Collier has been given an excellent chance to live up to her commitment to play major Division I basketball as soon as next season. That prognosis was offered by Collier's physician, Dr. Elihu Estey, a highly regarded expert in the treatment of leukemia at Washington and the world-renowned Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center, as well as by other experts who commented generally on APL as it might apply to a young, elite athlete.
APL is so rare that "we see a case every one to two years," said Dr. Jessica A. Pollard, who oversees the care of APL patients at Children's Hospital in Seattle, a city generally recognized as a global center for cancer treatment and research.
Dr. Pollard called the expectation that Collier could return to top-level competition "very reasonable" and said the Covington, Wash., native's athleticism would be a major plus in such a quest. That's a view shared by Dr. Terrence Cronin, who practices pediatric and young adult sports and dance medicine at Swedish Pediatric Specialty Care.
"I assume it will be just a matter of lost time," Dr. Cronin wrote in an email, referring to Collier's recovery. "She will be weakened by her treatment, and delayed intense training, so she will need a period of reconditioning after her recovery. Once she has regained fitness, I would assume she would be able to return to near her previous level of activity, if not back to it (completely). As far as relapse, I think she will need to [be] more attentive to a good balance of exercise, recovery, and nutrition. Simple things like getting plenty of sleep, close attention to diet and nutrition will be much more of a focus for her than for a typical college student, or even student-athlete."
Because of her daily treatment schedule, Collier will not make her Oct. 8 visit to Gonzaga. She has been on the Spokane, Wash., campus several times over the past three years, the same as she has Washington. She was able to make her official visit to UCLA, so she feels confident she has enough information to make a sound decision.
Having supported her mother's successful battle against breast cancer, Collier has a positive attitude about her future. She was released from the hospital Sunday, and Monday marked the first of 24 straight days that she'll drive to downtown Seattle for her treatment.
The full scope of the chemotherapy treatment, a combination of all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA) and arsenic trioxide (ATO), is supposed to span six months. Though eager for a return to some normalcy, Collier said she will not be able to return to school until her blood and platelet counts increase. Doctors have told her that she can begin reintroducing her normal activities once the treatments have been completed. The amount of activity and rate of recovery will largely be determined by what her body can physically handle.
"I think her fight and determination will serve her very well through this, from a physical and medical, but also an emotional, standpoint," Dr. Cronin said. "She will have to listen to her body and yield appropriately."
The initial prognosis -- that she would be in a battle for years to overcome the disease -- was so bleak that Collier couldn't bring herself to ask about basketball. With more information came a different diagnosis, and a completely different outlook.
"Basketball has been a part of my life forever," Collier said. "It's always been the idea to be playing in college, so that's definitely still going to happen."
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Chris Hansen is the national director of prospects for ESPN HoopGurlz and covers girls' basketball and women's college basketball prospects nationally for ESPN.com. A graduate of the University of Washington with a communications degree, he has been involved in the women's basketball community since 1998 as a high school and club coach, trainer, evaluator and reporter. Hansen can be reached at email@example.com.
Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A graduate of Seattle University and Columbia University, he formerly coached girls' club basketball, was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, has had his photography displayed at the Smithsonian Institute, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.