Some Pain, All Gain

Some Pain, All Gain

Athletes overcome medical challenges to win


Sawyer Price could hear the loud pregame music pumping through Tiger Arena in Bentonville as he hurried to his car. With each step, he could also feel his airway tighten a little more.

He knew when he felt a familiar tingling in the back of his throat he was having an allergic reaction to something he had consumed hours earlier. Price is one of an estimated 200,000 people in the U.S. who report severe dairy allergies each year, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The timing of this reaction could not have been worse. It was minutes before a big 6A-West Conference basketball game. As a starting guard for the Bentonville High boys’ basketball team, Price was amped up to play the Tigers’ longtime rival Rogers on this cold January night.

Before the team exploded out of the locker room for pregame warmups, Price calmly told his coaches he was in the early stages of an allergic reaction to something he had eaten.

“I was calm, and the coaches were calm when I told them,” Price recalled. “I mean, I just thought I was going to run out to my car, take the medication, and everything would be fine.

“But when I walked out of the locker room toward my car, that’s when I realized it was getting worse fast.”

Price, 17, was supposed to be with his team in the pre-game warmup. Instead, he was alone in a vast parking lot in his basketball uniform, struggling to breathe as his throat was starting to constrict from the allergic reaction.

“By the time I got out to my car, the reaction was picking up really rapidly,” Sawyer said. “So, at that point, I made a decision to drive myself to the ER.”

He put his key in the ignition and headed to a nearby hospital — leaving a gym full of people wondering where he was.

“I’d left my phone in the locker room, so when the game started, I had just disappeared,” Price said with a laugh. “Nobody knew where I was. My parents didn’t know. So when I got to the hospital, I told one of the nurses they needed to call my mom, then tell my mom to call my coach and tell them I’m not playing.”

Dairy allergies are different than lactose intolerance; dairy allergies involve the immune system. Reactions are as mild as a rash, or as in Sawyer’s case that night, severe difficulty breathing when the airway constricts. Anaphylaxis is a real possibility, and Price carries an EpiPen in his backpack as a precaution.

Bentonville boys’ basketball coach Dick Rippee said Price’s maturity in living with and controlling his allergy is remarkable.

“Whenever we eat someplace as a team, he always speaks with the restaurant to make sure he knows every ingredient that goes into what he’s eating,” Rippee said. “In the case of that night, he ordered the same thing he always gets at this restaurant, but a dairy product was used in this case, and he did not know it.”

Price was released from the hospital that night and played the rest of the season as the Tigers advanced to the 6A state tournament.

Price is one of several prep athletes across Northwest Arkansas who compete at a high level despite sometimes serious medical conditions.


Jeniya Gause lifted her practice jersey, revealing a tiny white sensor that pokes out of her abdomen.

Using a small hand-held scanning device, Gause scanned the sensor to check her glucose levels prior to a Springdale basketball practice.

Gause, 17, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was 11. Her older brother Treshawn Gause, who plays at William Woods University in Fulton, Mo., is also diabetic, although he was not diagnosed until after Jeniya.

“I’ve had mine about three or four months,” she said of her new high-tech device. “I like this a lot better. Treshawn still does his the old way, by sticking his fingers.”

She said hearing her diagnosis was a shock, mainly because she did not understand exactly what diabetes was. She equated it to cancer. She also wanted to keep her illness a secret, she said.

“It was tough at first,” she said. “I was embarrassed. I didn’t want any of my friends to know at first. But once I adjusted to it, I was able to open up to them about it.”

Gause moved to Springdale as a youngster from Illinois, where she still has a lot of family. A childhood friend from Illinois was diagnosed with diabetes, and the symptoms Jeniya were experiencing at the time were similar to her friend’s.

“My grandmother knew them and knew that she had been diagnosed,” Jeniya recalled. “So, she was talking to my mom about it, and it made my mom realize that I was experiencing the same things. Like I was experiencing dizzy spells and had trouble controlling my bladder, and I was always so thirsty. I kept like a gallon jug of water by my bed. I was always super thirsty.”

The diagnosis was hard to accept at first, Jeniya said.

“I was like, ‘am I going to die when I’m super young?’” she recalled. “But I didn’t understand, and I didn’t know how to control it then. I just remember being in the car and them telling me I had to go see an endocrinologist. I just started crying in the car. But my mom, she was strong, and that helped me a lot.”

Dr. Adam Maass, an endocrinologist with Mercy Health Systems, is Jeniya’s doctor. He said it is rare that two children from the same family would have juvenile diabetes.

Maass said participating in sports or maintaining an active lifestyle is strongly encouraged for teens with diabetes. An active lifestyle and proper diet are both key components in regulating blood sugar levels, he said.

New advancements in both the treatment and monitoring of diabetes have also greatly improved the quality of life for patients, he added.

“In the past 18 to 24 months, we’ve seen some remarkable improvements in the way diabetes patients can monitor their blood sugar levels,” he said. “They no longer have to prick their fingers throughout the day. Now there are sensors that can be surgically implanted, and they have a port that can be scanned by a phone app or scanning device to give them an instant reading.”

There are times her blood sugar levels keep Jeniya off the basketball court until she can get them corrected. She carries a small backpack with items like sports drinks and candy bars in addition to her glucose injections.

Maass said juvenile diabetes no longer comes with the complications it once did, like a short life expectancy or eating a very restrictive diet.

He estimates he has about 300 patients he sees regularly. Many are involved in sports, from football to basketball to everything else. Maass stressed that often there is a misconception that diet leads to juvenile diabetes, but that is simply not a factor.

“There is a definite genetic component that we think kids are going to be more prone to diabetes through genetics,” Maass said. “We don’t know what actually turns those genes on to make them become diabetic. But it has truly nothing to do with their lifestyle that would cause them to become diabetic.

“You can’t eat yourself into being a Type One diabetic, or be so lazy that it makes you become diabetic.”

Jeniya said she refuses to let diabetes keep her off the court, and she plans to follow in her brother’s footsteps by playing college basketball.


In a few months, Rylie Fitts will turn 16, the age most teens circle on their calendar years in advance. This coming-of-age milestone is significant because it represents the age a teen can get his driver’s license, opening a new avenue of freedom on the road to adulthood.

Like most teens, Rylie is looking forward to getting that little plastic card. The reality is, she may never get it.

“I have to be seizure-free for a year before I can drive,” Riley said.

Riley is one of an estimated 3.4 million people in the U.S. with epilepsy, a neurological disorder that causes various levels of seizures that often come on without warning. Epilepsy affects people of all ages, and there are various levels of epileptic seizures, some more severe than others.

“She actually has three kinds of seizures,” said her mom, Sierra. “She has absent seizures, petite grand mal seizures and the big ones, the grand mal.”

Riley, 15, was diagnosed with epilepsy at age 7 or 8, her mother said.

“They don’t know why she started having them,” Sierra recalled. “They don’t know if it’s hereditary. She hit her head when she was 7 on the monkey bars and gave herself a concussion. So that could have triggered it, we don’t know for sure, but it doesn’t really matter.

“She has it, and we deal with it.”

Riley played on the ninth-grade basketball team at Gravette High School and earned a spot on the varsity softball team after a two-day tryout.

“I’ve always loved sports,” she said. “It’s just relaxing, and it makes me feel great. Yes, playing sports can be stressful, and stress is a big factor (in triggering seizures), but you stop thinking about things and you just relax and it gets your mind off of it.”

Dr. Jhablall Balmakund, a neurologist at Arkansas Children’s Northwest in Springdale, has seen Rylie for more than a year. Dr. Balmakund said her participation in noncontact sports should not present any issues, adding it is his hope that children can live as normal a life as possible with epilepsy.

“Our goal is to get all kids back into their way of life where they will be happy and do most of the things they would like to do that kids their age are doing without a feeling of being left out,” he said. “Most patients do well and live a normal life and can do what teens like to do. That is why we treat them, so that they can do the things that kids like to do.”

Sierra said when Rylie started having seizures as a younger child, the family at first did not recognize the symptoms.

“She was about 7 or 8 when the absent seizures started, but we really didn’t pick up on it because she just stops what she’s doing and rolls her eyes back like she’s rolling her eyes at you, but with a little head jerk motion. So, we just thought she was being like a sassy kid,” Sierra recalled. “So, it took us a while to realize she was doing it more when she was in the sun and doing it more when she was playing softball than she was when she wasn’t playing softball.”

Rylie was about 12 when she had her first grand mal seizure during a sleep-over at a friend’s house. Her mom estimates she has a grand mal seizure about once a year, but she has 20-50 absent seizures per day.

“When she has a grand mal seizure, she just falls to the floor,” Sierra said. “She doesn’t even know she’s doing it. Her whole body goes stiff, like every muscle in her whole body tenses. She shakes really bad, she bites down on her tongue … basically, her whole brain is gone at that point, and she’s just not here.”

These major seizures usually last only a couple of minutes, but the effects linger for much longer, and it takes several days to fully recover, Sierra said.

Sun and heavy wind are two factors that could lead to a seizure, and Rylie’s parents have discussed her not playing softball. She wears specially designed sunglasses and has no intention of quitting what she loves.

“I love softball, and I love playing catcher,” she said. “I’ve always loved it.”

As she’s aged, she’s learned her limitations and how to control the threat of a seizure the best she can. Sometimes that means a change in her social calendar. She attended a church camp last summer, but she only lasted one day as a seizure forced her to leave.

“It’s hard sometimes, but when you have a seizure it makes me like ‘why did I do that to myself?’ and ‘I should have been more careful.’” Riley said.

This spring, Rylie has been on the same softball team as her big sister Addison, who is a junior at Gravette. It is the first time the sisters have been on the same team since T-ball.

At a basketball practice toward the end of the season, Addison expressed through tears how helpless it is to see her sister in the throes of a seizure.

“It’s hard. I … it’s just so hard because you can’t do anything, I can’t help her,” she said before a long pause. “She’s just such a strong person. Whenever I have a problem … it just doesn’t seem as big, you know? I know she has way bigger issues. But this doesn’t really affect her personality.

“She’s hilarious. She’s always making jokes. She’s hardly ever in a bad mood.”



Know More About It


There are more than 200,ooo cases of dairy allergies each year. The allergy can be treated, but there is no cure. Dairy allergies differ from lactose intolerance and could lead to life-threatening reactions. Symptoms may include:

• Abdominal pain

• Gastrointestinal issues like bloating, diarrhea and vomiting

• Rash or hives


There are more than 200,000 cases reported each year in the U.S. Juvenile, or Type 1, diabetes can be treated, but there is no cure. The disease is caused when the pancreas fails to produce enough insulin and usually appears in adolescence. Symptoms include:

• Excessive thirst, hunger or sweating

• Nausea or vomiting

• Blurred vision

• Rapid heartbeat, headache and sleepiness

• Unexplained weight loss


There are more than 200,000 cases reported each year in the U.S. It is caused by a disorder in which nerve cell activity in the brain is disturbed, causing seizures. The disease can be treated, but there is no cure. Symptoms include:

• Fatigue or fainting

• Muscle spasms or contractions

• Amnesia, anxiety or depression

• Temporary paralysis after a seizure

— Source: Mayo Clinic

Chip Souza can be reached at or on Twitter @NWAChip.

Categories: Cover Story