Three days before Christmas, Makenna Vanzant and her Farmington, Ark., High girls basketball teammates dropped off 23 Christmas stockings to the Arkansas Children’s Medical Center. Vanzant, the Cardinals’ sophomore point guard, was glad to be back, this time as a visitor.
Just one month prior, Vanzant had been a patient at the hospital, struggling with hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a condition that destroys blood platelets and can lead to anemia and even kidney failure because it damages the small blood vessels of the kidney. She’s back to playing basketball, but her bout with HUS has increased her appreciation for her health, her family and her tight-knit community.
Life’s quick pivot
Last season, Vanzant started as a freshman, averaging 15.5 points a game, and made the 5A all-state team while helping the Cardinals to the state semifinals. She worked hard to add muscle in the offseason, and in June was voted as one of the top newcomers in the state. Though only 5-foot-8, she had scholarship offers from Division II programs, and several Division I programs showed interest.
The morning of her team’s practice Oct. 18, a little over a month before the start of the season, she texted her mother, Monica, to tell her she was sick to her stomach. She practiced well that afternoon, but that night, still sick, she woke her mother up at midnight. The next morning, Monica texted Farmington coach Brad Johnson to tell him Makenna wouldn’t be at school.
“That morning, I took her to the doctor and they immediately told us to take her to the emergency room,” Monica said.
Thirty minutes after going to Washington General Medical Center in Fayetteville, she was rushed to Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock about three hours away. For five days, doctors thought she had inflammatory bowel disease, but her condition worsened. While she wasn’t in pain, she was listless, as if she had a bad case of the flu.
“I really wasn’t scared at all,” Makenna said. “I knew my faith would get me through it. I was more weirded out by it all.”
After a week at Children’s Hospital, Monica noticed the nurses were doing more regular blood tests on her daughter.
“That morning, they told me that her kidney function had dropped 50 percent in six hours,” Monica said. “I was floored. They told me they were going to do a kidney biopsy because they did not have a clue what was going on. By that afternoon by 3, all the doctors came in the room and were very honest. They said, ‘we are moving her to ICU, her kidney has shut down. She’s a very sick girl and you have to call your family.’ I don’t remember making the phone calls. All of that time is a blur.”
Keeping it honest
Coach Johnson tried to keep the team upbeat, but he didn’t sugarcoat the situation. Each day, the team would practice, lift weights, and then Johnson would hold a “Makenna” meeting to brief the team on Vanzant’s progress.
“We tried to focus on the positives and share information about Makenna,” Johnson said. “They did that every day to focus. With Children’s Hospital being a three-hour drive away, our kids were kind of removed from there. They could visit maybe on the weekends. By us being able to talk about her every day, that kept her a part of the program, in a sense.”
Vanzant was on the verge of turning 16 and her situation was sobering to her teammates.
“Teenage kids don’t think about their own mortality,” Johnson said. “This type of incident slaps them in the face. Makenna is never sick, never injured, never misses school. For her and the team to see her going through that, was difficult.”
It wasn’t easy for Johnson, either. In 2001, he was coaching the boys basketball team at Elkins, 18 miles east of Farmington. On Dec. 14, his team had an early pre-game meal, then stopped at the house of player Matt Clark to shoot baskets when Clark collapsed and was taken to the hospital. That night, shortly before the team was preparing to step on the court, Johnson learned that Clark had died of a heart condition. He broke the news to the team in the locker room and the game was canceled. The funeral services were held in the Elkins gym.
“I was a 25-year-old head coach,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t ready to deal with that situation. When this whole situation began to go down with Makenna, it felt like déjà vu to me, which was absolutely terrifying. I didn’t want to see this community to go through all that suffering. Fortunately, from that experience, I gained perspective on where players’ minds go and what the community needs in those situations.”
#22strong gains momentum
A prayer vigil at Farmington’s gym was quickly organized Oct. 26, the day Makenna went into the intensive care unit at Children’s Hospital. Several hundred packed the gym, some from other high school teams.
“That was an emotional night for our kids,” Johnson said. “That was the night they had to take in the that Makenna might not make it. From that point on, there was a lot of hope that came out of that vigil. From that moment, it became, ‘What can we do to help?’ You saw a lot of maturity. It galvanized them. They became very task oriented.”
At the prayer vigil, a minister asked for something that symbolized Makenna and Johnson brought out her No. 22 jersey. Johnson took that jersey and brought it to Makenna’s room at Children’s Hospital.
Two days after Makenna went in the hospital, Farmington’s football team sent out a tweet, with the hastag, #22strong, showing a team photo of players holding up two fingers in each hand to honor Makenna, who wears No. 22. Soon, other schools returned with their own team photos and the hashtag #22strong.
“I still get chill bumps when I think about it,” Johnson said. “It began to take a life of its own. I’m getting tweets, messages, phone calls from across the state. Teams from around Arkansas would take a team picture, with the players holding up two fingers in each hand and would tweet it out with the #22strong hashtag to support her. Then it became something bigger and we got messages and tweets from all over.”
Makenna, her mother, her father Ryan and her younger brother Cameron were inundated with cards, get-well wishes and gifts of food and teams from across the state visited her.
By the time she went into the ICU, doctors diagnosed her with HUS, which can also affect other organs, such as the heart or brain, because of the damage to tiny blood vessels. In Makenna’s case, her systolic blood pressure rose to a dangerously high 180 at one point.
HUS is a rare syndrome. In most cases, it can happen after a severe bowel infection caused by a strain of the E coli bacteria. It can also be a response to certain medicines or even be hereditary. In some cases, such as Makenna’s, the cause may be unknown. Most HUS patients recover complete kidney function, but in severe cases, it can be fatal. It most often affects those with lowered levels of immunity, such as children younger than 5 or adults 75 and over, not healthy 15-year-olds.
On Oct. 30, she was well enough to be moved out of ICU. On Nov. 1, she responded well to another blood transfusion and her lab numbers were much improved.
“The day before my birthday, they told me I would get to go home soon,” Makenna said. “Then on my birthday (Nov. 2), I woke up and all the doctors were telling me happy birthday and that I should be able to go home that day. Then they threw a surprise birthday party for me. I was super shocked.”
Makenna was discharged that afternoon. Coach Johnson, who lives close to the Vanzants, got a call from his wife, asking him to check on the Vanzant’s dog. When he got to the house, there was Makenna.
“What are you doing home?” Johnson asked.
“The doctors released me,” Makenna said.
“When do you have to go back?” Johnson asked.
“I’m not going back,” Makenna said.
Later that day,
shocked her teammates by walking into the team’s practice.
“I don’t even know if they recognized who I was at first,” Makenna said. “They were excited to see me.”
The road back
Makenna had lost 15 pounds. Even though she was well enough to be home, she had to take blood-pressure medication and was on a specific kidney-healthy diet that made it hard for her to gain weight.
“I couldn’t have any cheeses, any dairy, no sodium,” she said. “I couldn’t have anything like mashed potatoes.”
Knowing how headstrong his sophomore guard was, Johnson sat her down and told her he wouldn’t let her practice or play until he knew for sure she was ready.
“She’s so driven,” Johnson said. “But, she made a promise to me she would put away the toughness and be as honest with how she felt as she could.”
She swam on the weekends while lifting weights three times a week with the team and two other days with school trainers.
She progressed to practicing with the team for one minute in non-contact drills. The minutes gradually increased to the point she could do one-on-ones, then two-on-twos, then five-on-five with the scout team, then with the varsity.
The week of the Cardinals’ game with their big rival, Prairie Grove, Makenna had a question for Johnson.
“She told me, ‘Coach, what are the chances I could play Monday?’ ” Johnson said. “I told her that I would let her know. I didn’t tell her until Sunday afternoon. She was fired up and had that big grin.”
Vanzant entered the game with two minutes left in the first quarter and her team up 11-0.
“When I told her to go in, she couldn’t have gotten to the scorer’s table any sooner,” Johnson said.
When she entered the game, both sides of the gym stood and cheered, including the Prairie Grove fans. When she hit her first shot, the gym erupted.
“She drove in and had a floater,” Monica said. “That was pretty emotional.”
“It brought tears to my eyes standing there to see it,” Johnson said. “At that moment, it wasn’t about crosstown rivals. (Cardinals sophomore wing) Joelle Tidwell couldn’t contain herself and she was clapping while she was on the floor and I had to tell the players to get back on defense.”
Vanzant progressed faster than anyone anticipated. She hit the winning shot in a 65-62 defeat of Beebe on Dec. 1. Seven days later, before a Tony Chachere tournament game at Farmington against Pea Ridge, the opposing Blackhawks presented her with a bouquet of flowers and candy and Makenna scored 12 points in a 74-34 win. One day later, she led Farmington with 17 points in a defeat of Huntsville in the championship of the Tony Chachere.
“I feel pretty close to 100 percent,” Makenna said. “I started out going in late in the first quarter and then played more every game. Now, I’m playing a full game and I’m only tired at the beginning. I used to be way more physical. I was able to go up there and (move) people to finish and I can’t do that yet. Every game is getting better. My footwork was slower at the beginning, but now that’s coming back too.”
Makenna still has to take blood pressure medication and her kidney functions are tested regularly and in other ways, normal has changed for her.
“I see things in a different view,” Makenna said. “I’m just blessed.”