On Aug. 6, Sina King lay in bed at Summa Akron City Hospital with parents Benny and Katy King at her side. She was feeling stabbing pains in her chest, her right leg was swollen and she was having trouble breathing.
University of Akron women’s basketball coach Jodi Kest also was there trying to be supportive but unobtrusive. Kest believed she knew what was wrong with King, a Zips’ 22-year-old senior from Waterford, Ohio, who had been taken to the emergency room the day before. Kest thought it was a blood clot. Katy King had a feeling, too, suspecting a rare blood protein deficiency that plagues her side of the family.
When the doctor arrived, none were prepared for the devastating news.
No more basketball.
“I had a breakdown, a freakout,” King said.
“When that doctor came in and told her that and watching her cry and her parents crying and staying in the background because that’s their child and knowing how bad everybody was feeling, it was hard,” Kest said. “At the time, it was like someone finding out someone had died. That’s what we all felt like, that her basketball was done.
“There was devastation in her eyes.”
Benny King still can picture his suffering daughter and the coach who tried to lift her up.
“She lost it,” Benny King said of Sina. “She looked at coach Kest and said, ‘Coach, please don’t take my scholarship away.’ Coach said, ‘You don’t have anything to worry about.’?”
Not giving up
Nearly four months later, guard/forward King (whose first name is pronounced Sin-uh) doesn’t believe she’s through playing basketball.
Although she must take blood thinners for at least six months, which will sideline her this season, Kest has made King a student assistant. She sits on the bench next to the coaching staff and travels with the team.
Her specialist at the Cleveland Clinic is hopeful King will resume her career in 2014-15. Kest is saving her a scholarship, which King can use as she begins pursuing her master’s degree, with plans to become a dietitian.
As traumatic as the experience has been, King realizes how lucky she was. She said tests determined a blood clot traveled from her leg through her heart before breaking apart in her lungs. It could have reached her brain. She could have died from a pulmonary embolism or a brain or aortic aneurysm.
“They said 300,000 people die each year from what I had,” King said this month during an interview at Rhodes Arena. “Just thinking about it literally is mind-blowing. You’re always taught as an athlete, ‘Suck it up, you’ll be fine.’ I thought I had a pulled calf muscle.”
Said King’s best friend and teammate, Kacie Cassell: “She had a guardian angel looking after her, that’s for sure.”
All summer, King hadn’t been feeling well. She feared she had mononucleosis. Her mother mentioned the blood disorder her brother, Joe Rauch, was diagnosed with 11 years ago, and King dismissed it.
“I said, ‘Mom, absolutely not. A blood clot, that’s for older people. I don’t have that. I’m healthy,’?” King said.
When the calendar turned to August, King began feeling worse. She got what she thought was the flu. She and Cassell and teammate Rachel Tecca, roommates at 22 Exchange in Akron, were switching apartments. King had trouble breathing when she carried boxes.
“The next day, I woke up and I had really bad chest pains,” King recalled. “I could pick out four different spots where it felt like somebody was stabbing me. I thought I must have pulled something, so I talked to the trainer [Mark Lake]. He said, ‘I’m not sure, we’ll see how it feels.’?”
Her breathing problems continued. Two days later, King’s leg started to swell during conditioning, and she said she felt like she was going to pass out.
“When she kept having chest pains I kept encouraging her and her trainer to take her to the emergency room. You know young kids, they’re fearless and indestructible,” Katy King said in a telephone interview. “Then when the leg swelled and she sent me the picture, [I said] ‘Run.’?”
Kest said the same thing. She had already made the “calf, lungs, heart” connection and thought blood clot, referencing some reading she had done after 22-year-old University of Arizona basketball player Shawntinice Polk died from one in her lung in 2005.
“I walked over and said, ‘I hear you’re not going to practice today because you have some swelling. Let me see,’?” Kest said. “That thing was huge. I tried not to panic. I said, ‘Let’s go find Mark.’?”
The person who saved Rauch’s life had nothing to do with basketball; she was a physician’s assistant in Cleveland who he was dating. When his leg swelled, a doctor in Medina told him he had a pulled muscle. When he ignored pleas from his then-girlfriend, she called an orthopedic physician’s assistant, who told him to go to the ER immediately. It was a Friday night and he wanted to wait until Monday, but he relented.
Rauch learned he had a protein S deficiency, which is caused by a gene mutation and can be hereditary. Those with a low level of protein S are at an increased risk of abnormal blood clots. The deficiency occurs in 1 out of 20,000 people, according to the National Institute of Health. Rauch has a Type II deficiency, which he calls “the rarest of the rare.”
Rauch, 51, now works in the insurance business in Lititz, Pa. Since December, his then-31-year-old son, 25-year-old daughter and sister Katy King have been diagnosed with protein S deficiencies. King is believed to have it, too, but she is still waiting to be tested.
“I didn’t even know I had it, giving birth to two children, never had any trouble throughout my life,” said Katy King, who now takes an aspirin a day for the condition. “I kind of thought maybe it had missed us.”
On medication for the rest of his life, Rauch still works out, although he said he doesn’t take unnecessary risks. He said he initially educated his doctor on protein S, discovered in the late 1970s.
“There’s so many factors of one’s day-to-day life that can influence it — certain foods, being outside in the sun can change your numbers,” Rauch said by phone. “It’s all about living consistently from day to day.”
When it was suggested that his expertise could help King, Rauch said, “She’s got me to remind her of the curse.”
Living with disorder
Coping with “the curse” and the recent inactivity hasn’t been easy for King. She misses playing with the seniors she has spent four years with — Cassell, Tecca, Hanna Luburgh and Carly Young. The Zips went to the Mid-American Conference championship game last season and were a victory away from an automatic NCAA bid. In King’s last game in the WNIT at Duquesne, she scored her 1,000th point.
“She’d hate for me to say this, but it’s basically broken her heart,” Benny King, who has spent 30 years as a mechanic in a gas-fired power plant, said this month at Rhodes Arena. “She’s never been hurt or injured.”
Kest said she has seen King more upbeat the past two weeks. Cassell, her roommate since their freshman year, sees it, too. She said the crisis has illustrated King’s strength and mental willpower.
King still wears a medical alert bracelet on her right wrist because of the blood thinners. She has been giving them to herself in shot form for a month and will continue for eight more weeks.
“This whole experience has been so humbling for me,” King said. “I’m a strong athlete, I’m 22, it’s the best time of your life they say. You wake up and you’re in the hospital and you have this scary thing going on.
“I look at life a little bit differently now. I look at situations and think, ‘Wow, it could be a lot worse.’ Just be thankful to even work out, that’s something I really love. You have to see the positive in everything and the beauty of it.”
King bears no animosity toward the doctor who was so blunt. Her mother said he later apologized for his no-basketball edict, which he made without consulting a specialist and without realizing King was a Division I athlete.
“I’m glad he did it at the beginning, got a lot of the hard stuff out of the way,” King said. “I was almost in denial, like this wasn’t as big of a deal.
“My doctors are so optimistic, so that gives me reason to be optimistic, too. To be negative and think you’re not going to play again is not going to help the cause at all.”
In her 21 years as a coach, Kest said King is the hardest worker she has had. Every summer, King stayed at UA to train and improve, while also taking classes.
So on the toughest day of King’s life, Kest pushed through the tears and offered a glimmer of hope for a player she greatly admires.
“You can’t plan what you’re going to say,” Kest said. “Once Mom and Dad were done, I felt like it was my time to jump in there and hold her hand and tell her, ‘You’re going to be back next year and you’re going to be part of the team.’?”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the her blog at https://ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.