By Gabriel Stovall
FAYETTEVILLE, Ga. — Hannah Thomason’s senior year of softball was the stuff they make movies out of.
Not just because of the accomplishments and accolades, though.
Bestowed upon her this season were honors such as All-Region 4-AAAA Player of the Year. Being tabbed best softball player in Fayette County. First team all state. Named to the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association (GACA) and Georgia Dugout Club (GADC) all state teams. The list goes on and on.
The resume in itself is impressive. Now, add to it this little caveat: It almost didn’t happen.
None of it. The all-everything season. The college recruiting process. The all-star teams. But even beyond that, the camaraderie with teammates. The opportunity to get grass stains on a freshly pressed, white and red Whitewater High School home jersey while diving for balls. It all came painfully close to being non-existent this past season — and forever — due to the existence of an illness in her body that nobody wanted to believe she had.
SIGNS OF SOMETHING WRONG
Hannah’s travel ball coach Ernie Yarborough, who coaches the Georgia Power Demarini Gold team, will tell you that Hannah has good softball vision. She’s not a slugger behind the plate, but she sees the ball well as a slap hitter and a place hitter. And her vision and instincts in the outfield? Impeccable — that is until one crisp fall day in 2013 when it inexplicably went away. Literally.
“I blacked out in a game in the fall of my junior year,” Hannah said. “I just completely blacked out. I remember being told I was taken to Children’s Healthcare Hospital in Atlanta. It was crazy. I was here but I wasn’t here physically. It was really hard to comprehend.”
Especially considering the fact that nobody seemed able to explain — much less diagnose — why a perfectly healthy, extremely athletic softball star was now confined to a bed as doctors poked, prodded and questioned her, trying to decipher these symptoms that seemed to be a cross between rheumatoid arthritis and mono.
But then when those symptoms progressed from simple joint pain, fatigue and flu-like stuff to the complete numbing of her hands and face, mono seemed trite. Thus began the marathon journey from hospital to hospital and doctor to doctor trying to figure out exactly what her ailment was, which became taxing on Hannah to a point where, though she hadn’t completely stopped playing softball, it was obvious that she wasn’t herself, even out in her own personal oasis — the softball field.
“Hannah has always been the type of ball player who doesn’t like to lose,” said Mechelle Thomason, Hannah’s mother. “If she doesn’t achieve something, she’ll be angry at herself first. So to see her play on the field, and on one night she’d be camped out under a fly ball waiting for it to drop and doesn’t catch it, and then the next night she’s making diving catches that Major Leaguers would miss, it just wasn’t making sense.”
Couple that with hours and hours of continuous sleep — Hannah’s mother recalls the week when Fayette County schools were shut down due to the infamous ice storm of 2014, her daughter would sleep up to 20 hours a day — and stints of memory loss, along with other uncharacteristically odd behavior, and, as Mechelle Thomason stated, “the puzzle pieces weren’t fitting together.”
For instance, there was the time when Hannah grabbed and comfortably held the barrel of a curling iron used to style hair.
No big deal, except that the iron was turned on and the barrel’s temperature was approximately 350 degrees while Hannah casually cuffed it as though it were a bottle of room temperature water.
Then there was the sleepover Hannah attended at the home of one of her good friends, and while the other girls were chatting it up long into the night, Hannah slept — completely unlike her, especially when she had opportunities to kick it with her peers in an informal setting.
It scared Hannah’s friend to the point where she called Mechelle to express her concern.
“She told me what happened, and that she was afraid that Hannah was either very, very sick or on drugs,” Mechelle said. “You just know your child, and (drugs) didn’t sound like anything she would do. Hannah is a very non-dramtic girl, which is almost an oxymoronic statement when describing a teenage girl. It was really courageous of her to make that kind of call to your friend’s mother.”
But it wasn’t just close friends and family seeing the change in Hannah. Yarborough noticed it too.
He often described Hannah as “spirited” kid, who to others could come across as “cocky and arrogant.” But Yarborough likes spirited kids. So when one of his most spirited kids shifted in her demeanor, he was equally befuddled.
“For me it was frustrating, not really just because of the times when she couldn’t play softball,” Yarborough said. “But it was frustrating because there just were no answers. Her and her family needed some answers.”
One particular doctor, perhaps with nothing else better to say, suggested that Hannah was simply depressed.
“He said, ‘Look at her. She’s 17 years old. All teenagers are depressed,” Mechelle Thomason recalled. “He referred her to a psycoholgist and wouldn’t even attempt to broach the subject of what could be the root cause of what was wrong with her.”
That could’ve been because the path Hannah’s condition seemed to be pointing toward made no sense to most physicians who practiced in Georgia — or anywhere in the south for that matter.
However, in hindsight, such a flippant answer may have been exactly what the doctor ordered.
DETERMINATION SETS IN
Hannah gets her athleticism from her father Ken. Mechelle Thomason will gladly admit it.
“My husband is a natural athlete,” she said. “Hannah is a natural athlete. I am not.”
But what Hannah’s mother is, is tenacious. A fighter. One who doesn’t take “no” or “I don’t know” answers too kindly. Instead, she sees them as issued challenges. Perhaps it’s where Hannah’s brashness and confidence on the softball field comes from.
As for Mechelle, much of her tenacity came from watching her own mother fight an 18-year bout with cancer.
“My mother battled that disease, but she knew what her enemy was,” Mechelle Thomason said. “That knowledge prepared her to fight the way she did.”
So while the seemingly dismissive answer from the doctor offering depression remedies may have teed Hannah and family off, it fired her mother up.
“When that doctor said that to me, it was like ‘Game on,'” she said. “My husband looked at me and laughed. It was like he wanted to say to that doctor, ‘You have no idea what you just did.'”
BEING DOCTOR MOM
If there’s one warning medical professionals are quick to give to patients trying to figure out what’s ailing them, it’s this:
Don’t self diagnose. Don’t Google your symptoms.
An article found on foxnews.com back in January 2011 calls these symptom Googlers “cyberchondriacs.”
“You can’t make a diagnosis using the internet,” said Australian Medical Association vice president Steve Hambleton in a quote in the article.
Apparently Mechelle didn’t get that memo.
That “go see a psychologist” answer reignited her inherited fighter’s fire to find out how to get a diagnosis and treatment for her daughter. She’d already been doing some background work on the internet, doing exactly what is recommended not to do — Googling all of Hannah’s symptoms.
And each search kept leading the Thomasons back to an illness considered by many in the south to be an afterthought.
“Lyme disease kept popping up,” Hannah recalls of her mother’s search results. “My mother said that when she kept seeing it, and when she kept pulling it up, she knew in her gut that that’s what it was.”
Now, the unenviable task of trying to convince someone to take them seriously enough to test Hannah for it.
A tick-born ailment, Lyme disease can cause arthritis, meningitis and other neurological issues. Some of its chief symptoms are joint pain, headaches, swelling, fatigue, numbness and tingling in the hands, feet or back.
Hannah’s mother had watched her daughter be tested to no avail for every other disease. Why not this one? But here was the issue: Lyme disease in Georgia — and in virtually all parts of the south, for that matter — is reportedly rare. According to the Center for Disease Control’s website, only eight confirmed cases of Lyme existed in Georgia in 2013.
Compare that to a place up north like Connecticut where the disease is more prevalent. Connecticut saw 2,111 confirmed cases and 814 probable cases of the disease in the same year. Georgia, on the other hand, had reported just 193 confirmed cases from 2004 to 2013 combined.
It was the documented rarity of the disease in Georgia that caused confusion, if not skepticism, in the minds of most doctors who saw Hannah. But the turning point came when another friend of the family testified to having had the disease.
Through that, Hannah’s mother discovered that, though perhaps rare in Georgia compared to the rest of the nation, Lyme was still a sickness affecting enough people that it should be taken more seriously by doctors. She challenged the notion that its rarity was enough to warrant brushing aside the possibility of serious cases of disease contraction in this area.
“It is a life changing disease,” she said. “There are rising cases of it in Fayette (County) alone. But because doctors are not recognizing it, it’s not getting reported. And if it stays in your system long enough and if you don’t kill it, people can die from it.”
At one point that’s exactly what Hannah thought was happening to her.
During the aforementioned winter weather induced week off from school, Hannah, during the rare moments when she wasn’t asleep, ventured outside to slide down a hill in front of their house while the snow and ice was still on the ground. But on that Sunday night right before school came back in session, Mechelle says that Hannah complained of having bad headaches. She was crying and upset.
Hannah had missed 40 days of school which almost required her to be put on homebound status, but because of the past week out of school, her mom figured it wouldn’t hurt to give her another couple of days rest.
“I said that because she was out for those snow days, it obviously didn’t count as absences against her, so giving her some more time to rest wouldn’t be a problem,” she said. “And that’s when Hannah said to me, ‘What are you talking about? It doesn’t snow in Georgia.’
“So I showed her the video on my phone of her sliding down the hill, and she burst into tears because she didn’t remember any of it. She asked me, ‘Am I dying?’ And that’s the time when a mom has to put the game face on. I told her, ‘You know what, Sweety. I don’t know, but I promise you I’m going to find out what’s wrong with you.'”
At that point, softball — the sport she adored — was an afterthought. The only game Hannah wanted to ensure she could keep playing was the game of life.
“I heard stories about people going 14 years undiagnosed with the disease,” Hannah said. “And they would become paralyzed from the waste down. I saw all of these people and their paralyzed cases and it scared me. I didn’t want that to happen to me. I decided I don’t care what it takes. If I have to get home schooled, quit softball, whatever it takes I’m willing to do it to get better.”
DIVINE DIAGNOSIS INTERVENTION
When Mechelle Thomason thinks of it all now, she can only attribute the way Hannah found healing to the work of a Higher Power.
“God really worked a work in Hannah,” she said. “Through it all, God strengthened her faith, and really, all of our faith.”
That may not have been anymore evident in any part of this twisting, winding emotional roller coaster of a journey than in the way Hannah was able to get to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla.
“After the video incident, I had just determined that something’s wrong, something’s really serious and somebody, somewhere is going to tell me what’s wrong with my daughter,” Mechelle said.
That’s when the family reached out to the Mayo Clinic. They knew that a six to eight month wait to get in was typical. And though longer than desired, everyone felt it was the extreme measure that needed to be taken in order to put Hannah on the road to discovery and recovery.
But to the surprise of everyone, the perceived time table was greatly shortened.
“We knew the six-to-eight month wait was there and I’d have to be put on the waiting list, but I decided to stick it through until then,” Hannah said. “But then a week later, we got the call that they had an opening for me at the end of March 2014. I took that as a sign to get down there as quickly as possibly. I believe that God made it happen for my family.”
The staff at the Mayo Clinic left no stone unturned. They screened Hannah through the neurology department. They took 13 vials of blood from her, and subjected her to MRI and EKG tests. Then, three more vials of blood and a lumbar puncture.
The last time Mom brought up Lyme disease to a doctor, she was laughed at. But right before all the other test results came back, Mechelle mentioned it again, this time with a more favorable response.
“The doctors doing the testing there had seen Lyme before, so that’s why my mom had mentioned it again,” Hannah said. “They told her that it was rare in the south, but we’re still gonna test her for it. After a while, we got the call back and they told my mom, ‘Yep. You’re right. She’s got Lyme.'”
Perhaps when you go through 15 months of either being told that there’s nothing wrong with you, or it’s unknown what’s wrong with you, it changes the way you respond to being told you have a disease.
Hannah and her family say they were happy to not only finally hear that something specific was wrong, but to know what it was, and also to know that it could — and would — be treated.
“I guess the good thing too was that I was two strands positive,” Hannah said. “In order to be considered for treatment you have to be at least two strands positive.”
In a classic oxymoronic conundrum, this diagnosis made Mechelle Thomason glad.
“Fifteen months from the blackout — from the first day of symptoms until then, we finally got a name for this,” she said.
Just like her grandmother, Hannah finally knew what her enemy was.
Spring of 2014 had gone into full bloom, and Hannah — not too far removed from her Mayo Clinic experience — was taking laps around the track in the sun for the start of summer workouts for the Whitewater Wildcats softball team, when it happened again.
Halfway through the third lap, a little wooziness struck, and she hit the ground. Blackout. Just like in Fall of 2013. The training staff cooled her down with ice bags. Mom and Dad came from work to see about her. But this time it was different.
Since returning from Jacksonville, the family found a Lyme literate doctor in McDonough. Hannah had gone through rounds of IV therapy. She received supplements to boost her immune system. She was taking doxycycline, an antibiotic used to treat various viruses and diseases, including Lyme.
Remember how Hannah said she was so resolute to get well, she’d quit softball if need be? Well, scratch that. Her doctors gave clearance to play her senior season. They assured her, Coach Yarborough and Whitewater coach Richard Townsend that Hannah’s condition — she’d since found that her Lyme disease was chronic — would not inhibit her ability to play softball, so long as proper precautions were taken to make sure she wasn’t getting overheated, or overexerting herself.
So this time, when the blackout hit, there were no thoughts of giving up. Just a determination to do whatever she could to stay at home — on the softball field.
“The softball field was the place for her that helped her get through all of the tough times,” Mechelle Thomason said. “She would play sick sometimes, or not be at her best, but still would be out there giving it 100 percent. It was the place that helped her escape from the stress of the illness.”
That’s why when Hannah was armed with the news that she didn’t have to give up the game she loves, she charged after it even more.
“When I thought about the fact that I’d been playing since I was nine years old, and I always had the dream of committing to a school to play college softball, and when I was told playing the game wouldn’t make my condition worse, I decided I wasn’t about to let a disease or the health of my body become a detriment to that opportunity,” she said.
So she played. She played better in 2014 than at any other point in her softball life. She starred for the Wildcats, leading them to a 26-9 record and state tournament berth. She was the team’s best player. She scored 45 runs, tallied 44 hits with a .579 batting average. She stole 35 bases and knocked two home runs for Coach Townsend’s bunch, hence the truckload of postseason accolades.
On her travel ball team, Yarborough said she had the highest fielding percentage of any of his outfielders. She was a force to be reckoned with on the field, even as she learned how to set proper boundaries and become accustomed to her limitations.
Oh, and about that college softball dream? Kennesaw State offered, before knowing anything about her condition.
“A lot of people didn’t even know she was sick,” Mechelle Thomason said. “We didn’t want anything that was happening to affect her chances of signing somewhere. But after we knew what was going on, we talked with the coach that recruited her at Kennesaw and we told him everything. The coach never blinked. He said he still wanted her.”
And Hannah wanted Kennesaw State. She signed to play softball for the Lady Owls before her senior season at Whitewater began.
How do you reconcile going from being sick, not knowing what’s wrong, feeling like softball — or even life — could be over, to being considered one of the state’s best softball players and living the dream of playing college ball all in one year?
“I think she just had to see that she could get through it,” Townsend said. “She wanted to play so bad. She had a goal this year, and I think it shows her character. A lot of athletes get to a certain point where they sign to a school, and then they coast. Hannah didn’t coast. She kept on going. She had a goal of what she wanted to do and she accomplished it.”
Hannah measures in at roughly 5-feet-3 inches. But don’t let the diminutive presence fool you.
“She’s small in stature, but she’s got a huge heart,” Yarborough said.
And a big arm.
“She’s got the kind of arm where she could pitch baseball, honestly,” he added.
Now, Hannah has something else helping her stand tall. A platform. She has the experiences of facing career threatening and potentially life threatening circumstances to stand on. She has earned the privilege of being able to tell others how she not only got through those circumstances, but how she thrived in them.
“For me, for Hannah, it validated her passion,” Mechelle Thomason said. “It validated that you can overcome these things. You can excel in the midst of a storm, no matter what the storm is. And now, it’s not even about softball really. Hannah knows that she’s only got four more years. Girls don’t go pro. But it doesn’t matter if she doesn’t play ball again.
“She’s got an avenue, a platform. Whether it’s at Whitewater or at Kennesaw State or wherever, somebody is going to realize how tough she was, how tough she played, though sick, and did it with a smile. Some little girl is going to look up to her one day. She wants to be a physician’s assistant, so she may get the chance to tell someone’s daughter who comes into a doctor’s office with her mom, scared and not knowing what’s wrong with her, about how it feels to do 15 months of doctor’s visits and ER visits and not know what’s wrong, and somebody’s going to listen to her.”
And Hannah says she’ll be glad to tell them what she’s learned through it all.
“This entire process taught me that I’m stronger than what I think I am,” she said. “That there’s something inside of me that can overcome wanting to give up. That I’m not okay with not being the best. I don’t quit when times get rough. I’ve learned how to fight for something.
“I’ve learned that you don’t really know you’re strong and what’s in you until you have to prove it.”