BELGRADE — Just a month after a hopeful surgery to correct a serious ailment in her leg, junior Gabby Weber is in the Belgrade gym, no crutches, shooting free throws.
But since a basketball game in December, Weber has endured the toughest trial of her life.
“We were doing awesome in the first half. We were close, I think, only down by one or something like that at halftime, so we were just pumped going into the locker room,” Weber reflected of the Panthers’ game against eventual state champion Havre. “We were ready to come out and spark something in us. That third quarter, it was toward the end of that third quarter, maybe a minute left, and I was just running back to get back on defense and that’s when my calf just really cramped really bad and it just brought me right to the ground.”
“We all cringe, and, you know, the first thing we thing is, you know, ACL, blown out a knee or another ankle sprain,” Weber’s mother, Crystal, said.
Gabby thought she might have pulled her calf muscle so she walked it off, but she said the sensation in her leg was like the worst pain imaginable.
“We kind of thought maybe [I was] lacking electrolytes, not drinking enough, not having enough oxygen,” Gabby said, “so we kind of thought, ‘Yeah, we will take three days off. We were heading into the weekend and we had a road game coming up in Butte. I’ll rest the next few days and should feel be good by then.'”
But the pain didn’t get better, and that’s when Gabby and her family decided to put her season on hold to receive treatment.
“We did some dry-needling therapy over Christmas break and we saw my primary doctor and found out I had a slight iron deficiency, nothing too major and we kind of thought, ‘Well, OK, maybe that’s side effects of the cramping and causing the cramping.’ We were hoping that was the reason why,” Gabby said.
The treatment helped, so Gabby tried to play one more time. But the cramping didn’t stop and it was time for her family to seek more answers.
“That’s when we started to see multiple doctors, we went in and saw orthopedic doctors. I got some MRIs done, some CT scans, they were all coming back normal to them in the sense there was nothing to worry about,” she said.
But when her foot started to swell, lose feeling and turn purple, she knew it was more serious than what the dozens of doctors were saying.
“The not knowing is the hardest part of any situation, like this is not knowing, and I don’t really do well with the not knowing,” Crystal said. “So I was on the phone every day with somebody, I’m just not OK with this. This girl is 17 and not normal.”
At 17 years old, Gabby was facing losing her foot and potentially her ability to play basketball.
“There was definitely times, you know, sitting in the doctor’s office for the sixth time, no one wanted to say the elephant in the room, but we were all thinking the same thing of possibly losing my foot,” Gabby admitted. “Just how debilitating it was, every single doctor’s appointment we went to the situation was worse, the feeling in my foot, being able to move it, so we definitely were very scared.”
“We actually met with a surgeon from Salt Lake and that’s when people started to say, ‘This is strange and unusual, and you need to go to Mayo Clinic,'” Gabby said. “And so he walked us through my CT scan that I got and it showed that my arteries right below my calf completely disappear, so he was really worried that I was going to lose my foot if we didn’t figure out what was going on.”
A trip to Mayo Clinic in Minnesota showed Gabby and her family that she had popliteal artery entrapment syndrome. This rare vascular disease makes the muscles and tendons behind the knee compress the popliteal artery, which then restricts blood flow to the rest of the leg, according to www.clevelandclinic.org.
“Our surgeon did tell us it is a hard thing to diagnose because it is very uncommon,” Crystal said. “And so it is hard to diagnose, but still, when it’s your own kid you just want that diagnosis, whether it’s hard or not.”
Finally, the Weber family had answers — but not without road blocks.
“We got there and got my first test done,” Gabby said about their time at Mayo. “We were waiting to meet with the doctor and surgeon and started to hit a major hiccup with our insurance, just, you know, denying us coverage when we were there.”
But that’s when the Belgrade community stepped up and created a GoFundMe page for the Webers.
“It was actually pretty neat, we were all sitting in the hotel room, just heartbroken,” Gabby said. “To be in that situation that night and to see that be posted and it wasn’t like it took a few days for people to donate, people were donating right away and that just really lifted our spirits big time. To, you know, go through and keep pushing and fight our insurance. It was just amazing.”
In the end, the solution came from a surgeon in Billings who was experienced in the operation and willing to perform it. And the road to recovery began.
“We don’t really know how long it could take, he was thinking eight weeks or eight-to-12 weeks is what he said,” Gabby said. “With the nerve damage I’m kind of experiencing, it’s hard to tell when exactly that’s going to start coming back, so we’re just going to take it one day at a time, one week at a time.”
But through it all, Gabby has continued to remain positive.
“I went through this for a reason and something great is going to come out of it and I’m just going to come back stronger, that’s been a really big motivator,” she said. “I’m hearing from the surgeon that, you know, I get to play summer ball has been a really big motivator, as well, and it’s just really encouraging to hear that.”
So what’s next for Gabby?
“Definitely to go to college, that’s been a goal of mine since I could dribble a basketball and I would always go out in the driveway, I was that 6-year-old girl that would dribble around and count down in my head and that’s definitely been a goal of mind,” she said. “And falling in love with basketball at such a young age, you kind of picture yourself making it to that college level. Entering my high school career, it’s just getting closer to that goal that I’ve had, it’s definitely still there.”