GREAT FALLS — In Great Falls CMR’s girls basketball home opener against Billings Senior, Rustler senior guard Lauren Wilkins took the floor with a smile, a competitive drive and a few nerves.
“Yeah, I was a little nervous to get back on the court because it had been a full year since my last game,” she said. “So I was super eager to be able to get back on the court with the girls that I love.”
It was more than just a game for Wilkins. It marked a comeback from unimaginable depths filled with suffering, setbacks and uncertainty.
Wilkins comes from an athletic family and has thrived on the basketball court her entire life. She brings energy every time she’s on the floor and rarely ever got tired, but she noticed a drastic change after the first day of tryouts as a junior.
“I came home and I was up late till like 4 in the morning with lots of stomach issues. And from there it progressed and got worse,” Wilkins said. “It was really hard to go through that. Not having control of your body is scary.”
Doctors in Great Falls were puzzled at the cause of her illness and struggled to find a diagnosis. There was a possibility it was cancer or some other serious life-threatening condition. Being the active teenager that she is, Wilkins fought hard to stay on the floor.
Wilkins played in only five games as a junior, but each time recovering from the exertion became more difficult. She had to leave the team after the first crosstown game and believed her basketball career might be over.
“I kept trying to push myself harder because that's the kind of person that I am, but I just kept getting worse,” Wilkins said. “So I was getting nausea all the time. My hands would turn blue and white and it was really scary because I had lost like 20 pounds in about a month. I couldn’t even walk to the bathroom, I had to crawl.”
The illness took a toll physically and mentally.
“It was just as much an emotional struggle as it was a physical one,” she said. “There’s a lot of deep wounds that come from everything being taken away from you.”
Wilkins and her family traveled to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, to find answers. Eventually a diagnosis came.
Wilkins suffered from postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). It’s a condition that affects blood flow and volume in the body and severely impacted her autonomic nervous system: heartbeat, breathing, digestion, blood flow and skin temperature.
The bad news is that POTS is chronic, so it’s something Wilkins will likely have to live with for years, if not forever. The good news is that symptoms are manageable with treatment and lifestyle changes.
Wilkins has to get extra sleep, she has to follow a strict diet with no junk food, she takes salt pills, receives iron infusions and wears compression sleeves on her legs when she takes the court.
“With my health, I’m kind of like an 18-year-old in an 80-year-old’s body,” she laughed. “That’s the mentality that comes with that too.”
After four months essentially bed-ridden, Wilkins began the long road back to good health.
“I remember the first time I took a five-minute walk I came back and my legs were just dead,” Wilkins explained. “So my dad (Tim) and I came up with a plan to get back to basketball. We went to the backyard, and we shot one shot. And then every day after that I would add more shots.”
Eventually Wilkins was cleared to return to the court after a lost junior season. Her presence on the Rustlers has had an incredible effect on her team -- both on the court and off.
“Her leadership is unparalleled. What she brings to the table is she makes you smile. I mean, you can't help it,” said CMR head coach Brian Crosby. “And the thing about last year is she never had a bad day. She's such an amazing young lady and such a great leader. And even when she wasn't playing her importance to our program was unreal.”
Wilkins' health journey has given her a new perspective.
“Suffering is such a beautiful gift. Having my world get rocked definitely reordered my priorities,” she said. “When you suffer, you learn how important friendships are and how important faith is. So as much as I love sports and I'm very grateful to play, I love and appreciate the little things like just being able to go to school.”
But of course Wilkins didn’t come back on her own. A return wouldn’t have been possible without her faith, family and friends.
“It’s just such a blessing to be able to have people that you can trust and that you can be vulnerable with,” she said. “I think a lot of people are not used to being vulnerable. And this diagnosis of my chronic illness has definitely allowed me to do that. I give all the to the Lord, and I’m just so thankful for what I went through.”