Hadley Nielson's reaction to the start of the 2013-2014 girls basketball season is like that of the typical player who wants the season to get rolling.
“I'm super stoked,” Nielson, a 6-foot-3 junior, said after the finish of the final preseason practice with her Highland High teammates.
Hadley Nielson, however, is not your typical player. Her dream as a 5-year-old was to play basketball in the WNBA. At 5, Nielson had a bad week. A very bad week.
That bad week began with a doctor visit and diagnosis she had marfan syndrome — a disease of the connective tissue that can affect a number of body systems. In Nielson's case, marfan syndrome has caused scoliosis, an enlarged aorta and vision problems to name a few. Several days after the diagnosis, Nielson was riding a tricycle in her driveway. A relative did not see her and accidently ran over her.
“We went from getting the diagnosis to wondering if she would survive,” Jennifer Nielson, Hadley's mother, said. “She was unconscious for quite awhile. One doctor said off-handledly that perhaps marfan syndrome helped her. .. .We took it as a little miracle. The things she's overcome. She is blessed, and we are blessed.”
Hadley Nielson recovered from the accident. Marfan syndrome's affects, unfortunately, don't go away. It usually is found in those who are unusually tall or slender and have long limbs (Hadley is 6-3). Given marfan's affects on Hadley, there was little if any hope she could participate in contact sports — i.e. basketball — due to her heart condition and higher risk of a ruptured aorta.
Fast forward to seventh grade. A trip to the cardiologist for another checkup. The report showed the aorta had ceased to enlarge. She was cleared to play.
“It was the best doctor visit I ever had,” Hadley Nielson said. “It was something I never thought would happen.”
Having never had the chance to play basketball, she was like a prisoner released early from a life sentence. Free to compete, but five or six years behind most other girls her age. Her prognosis as a player?
“I remember her coming to our camp in eighth grade,” Highland coach Miner Webster said. “I saw this tall, gangly kid. I needed to keep an eye on her since she was so tall. After watching her, I thought she'd never make it.”
Nielson returned to camp as a ninth-grader. She garnered Webster's attention again.
“I couldn't believe how much she'd improved,” Webster said. “She wasn't fantastic, but she'd gotten a lot better. At the time I didn't know any of her background. We'd get on her because she had trouble catching the ball. She'd fumble it a lot. We didn't know she had vision problems.”
Hadley Nielson earned a spot on Highland's freshman team and averaged 15 points a game. She played on the junior varsity and at times on varsity last year as sophomore. Her season was interrupted by eye surgery to repair-restore the lens in her right eye. Her vision is improved, but she often has double vision.
A second opinion on her heart condition was sought with a visit to Cedar Sinai Medical Center in California last summer to confirm playing was still not an enormous risk. All systems go.
Hadley Nielson began the season as one of five starters for Highland and in line for a good share of playing time as the Lady Hawks opened their season this week hosting their annual Thanksgiving Tournament. Hadley averaged 7.5 points and 7.5 rebounds in wins Monday and Tuesday this week over Alhambra and Saguaro, respsectively. Her reboundin and scoring in the final period Tuesday vs. Saguaro helped nail down a come-from-behind victory.
Getting her chance to play at her healthiest has further brightened an already sunny outlook under the circumstanes. Hadley's battle with marfan prompted Jennifer Nielson to pen a memoir of what her daughter has faced for more than a decade. Titled “Rubber Band Girl”, it was published just about a year ago. Mom still marvels at her daughter's handling of all that's come her way — good and bad.
“Her spirit is strong,” Jennifer Nielson said. “She is a happy kid. To have the attitude she has with all she's experienced is inspiring to me. Getting the chance to play basketball like she always wanted and hoped is exciting.”
Hadley Nielson is ever mindful of her chance to follow her dream. She and her family study marfan syndrome relentlessly. They attended a conference dedicated to it last year. One more reminder…..
“At the conference there are lots of others with marfan syndrome that don't get to do what I'm doing,” Hadley Nielson said. “I'm gratedful. I don't take it for granted.”