HHS athlete fights rare illness to play sports she loves
Many professional athletes talk about the love of the game, and the game has given a lot back to them.
But, it is the athletes told that they will never play again, who find a way back onto the field that truly know what it’s like to love the game.
Courtney Weber, of Hillsboro, is one of these athletes.
Weber played three sports for Hillsboro High School her sophomore year. In the fall, she played tennis; in the winter, basketball is her game; during the spring, Weber was a standout on the Trojan softball team that went 23-3 on the season. Weber said that she likes to stay as active as possible.
The summer before her freshman year, Weber was diagnosed with Chiari malformation; Weber’s cerebellum had grown 3 to 4 millimeters down her spine into her neck. She regularly suffered headaches — as many as four a day — but she thought it was normal. When she suffered severe neck pain, doctors gave Weber a Magnetic Resonance Imaging scan and immediately knew the pain was caused by Chiari malformation.
Although doctors at Hillsboro Community Hospital knew of the genetic condition, they did not know a lot about it.
Weber then went to see neurologists and neurosurgeons in Wichita for their expert opinions.
Along with headaches, Chiari, as Weber referred to it, caused a plethora of back and neck problems. Weber’s back curves the opposite way and she suffered severe neck injuries.
The neurologists and neurosurgeons, after identifying all these complications, told Weber that she would have to give up all physical activity with the exception of walking.
Weber said she broke down sobbing in the office.
“It completely crushed me because sports are everything to me,” she said.
Weber and her parents, Eddie and Connie Weber, continued to search for doctors with more experience in working with Chiari patients. While her parents continued to look for doctors, Weber could not participate with her peers in other physical activities. When her classmates were running and playing in gym class, Weber was resigned to walk around the track. She hated the constriction of her movement and the isolation from other students.
The Webers saw neurosurgeons and neurologists throughout Kansas, but they received good news when they visited Dr. John Oró at the Chiari Care Center in Aurora, Colo.
Oro said Weber would not be prohibited from playing sports — only football and soccer are off limits.
“It was such a relief,” Weber said.
Before Weber could return to Hillsboro courts and fields, she would have to submit herself to a three-month regimen of physical therapy to strengthen her neck.
Weber was forced to sit out the tennis and basketball seasons for the Trojans in 2009, but made it back in time for the majority of the softball season. Weber joined fellow freshman Franny Gottsch as one of two pitchers on the team, eating innings for the 13-11 team that lost in the first round of the state tournament to Thomas More Prep-Marian of Hays.
Weber said the torque and drive required for pitching makes the activity hard on her back. During her freshman season, she played with a fracture in her lower back. The injury forced her into another summer of intense physical rehabilitation.
Weber healed in time to play tennis, but for all of her sports this past year, she sometimes wore a back brace, which hindered her movements, especially in basketball and softball.
“I’ve gotten used to it,” she said.
Hillsboro softball coach Stephanie Sinclair said Weber wore the brace more often as the season went along. Weber was fitted for a new brace that fit more comfortably, and wore it every time she pitched.
Weber said that she always feels tightness in her back, no matter what kind of strain she puts on it.
“My back is already going downhill,” she said. “I just fight through it.”
Weber’s coaches and parents have tried to limit the strain on her back and neck. For example, she does not carry a backpack because of the unnecessary weight put on her spine.
Sinclair limited Weber’s innings on the mound. The softball pitching motion, for healthy athletes, does not put as much strain on the pitchers arm as baseball; the Trojans often saw pitchers start in back-to-back games.
Even though Weber developed into Hillsboro’s ace throughout the year, she never started back-to-back games. The only time Sinclair would allow her to pitch twice in a day would be in one or two innings of relief for Gottsch.
Sinclair would also keep Weber from pitching in practice after a game.
Not that Weber would always make it easy. She said that even when she was fighting through pain, sometimes she would say she was fine to stay in the game.
“I don’t think it hurts, it’s more tightness; it’s a different kind of discomfort,” Sinclair said. “I know she played through a lot of that. She had to learn to compensate in different ways.”
Weber will do some physical therapy during the year to try to relieve the tightness in her back. Sinclair said that many pitchers face a similar type of tightness that can be relieved through a chiropractor’s correction. Weber can’t receive a correction because of Chiari.
Weber said that her back was acting up again after this season and she would have a summer of physical therapy for the third year in a row, although she will also play basketball, lift weights, and take pitching lessons. Oro and other doctors have told her that surgery — an eventual necessity — is not an option until her body stops developing.
Although Chiari can be a progressive disease and Weber’s condition could get worse over time, she said she has never once thought about quitting sports.
“I love it so much; I’m just going to keep doing it,” she said. “You can only play sports for so long. I’ve learned to not take anything for granted.”
Last modified June 9, 2010