Every day last fall, Katie Shea would come home from school and run loops around her neighborhood. She’d jump rope. She’d take a volleyball and practice hitting it against the garage, so much and so hard that she dented the downspouts on the garage and they needed to be replaced.
Meanwhile, her RHAM volleyball team was winning and winning. And she couldn’t play.
Shea, then a junior, had come down with a mysterious ailment over the summer during a volleyball tournament in Florida. The only symptom anyone could discern was that she was often confused.
After she was hospitalized for several weeks, including a stay at the Boston Children’s Hospital, she was diagnosed with autoimmune encephalitis, an autoimmune disorder affecting the brain. Symptoms can include everything from seizures and loss of balance to weakness and numbness. But for Shea, it was just the confusion. With treatment, she was allowed to go to school, but she couldn’t play volleyball.
“That was what killed me,” Katie said. “We practice every day, we have pasta parties, sleepovers. We’re together all the time. My parents, the staff, said, ‘No, you can’t go to any of those things.’ Almost all my friends are on the volleyball team. So having that major part of my life taken away, that was the biggest thing.”
Katie was a National Honor Society student, taking a full load of advanced level classes. She was a tutor. Now she had a reduced course load, and her own tutor.
“I thought it was a really cruel joke, for the longest time,” she said. “I was physically fine.”
“She went from a dedicated volleyball player and high achieving student, to student stricken by this horrible condition,” said her mother, Kathy Shea. “Every single day, she would say I want to play volleyball. That’s all she focused on. I never thought she’d play her junior year, but she recovered enough to play in the tournaments.”
Eventually, Shea was cleared to return to the court for the CCC Tournament, which RHAM won. And she was on the court when RHAM defeated Farmington 3-1 to win its second Class L title, and sixth overall championship. It was that much more sweet for Shea, as RHAM had lost in the finals to Farmington her freshman year and to Platt her sophomore year.
This season, Shea, who moved from a middle hitter position to outside last year, is a key player for the Sachems, who are undefeated at 24-0, No. 1 in the state coaches volleyball poll and top-seeded in the Class L Tournament. They will play fourth-seeded Guilford Wednesday at 6 p.m. at Middletown High in the Class L semifinal game.
“Katie worked extremely hard at relearning a lot of things that most people take for granted in playing volleyball,” RHAM coach Tim Guernsey said in an email. “She had to learn a new position on top of getting physically adjusted to the speed and daily demands of practice and games.
“When she was finally cleared to come back, she had to work really hard at getting her timing down as a hitter. Volleyball can be very physical with all the jumping and moving that if you have been away from the game for a long period, you forget the demand that it puts on your body physically.”
Shea, who also plays basketball, is a Type-A, driven student and athlete. She was sick with a sinus infection at the end of June of 2016 when she went to Florida for a volleyball tournament with her club team.
“They don’t know what caused my actual illness, although I was sick in Florida. I was taking cough medicine,” she said. “Then I came back from Florida. I didn’t realize I was sick and that’s the craziest part of this. My parents were treating me differently. My mom was like, ‘Why are you saying that? Why are you doing that?’ I didn’t realize I was acting differently. They brought me to Connecticut Children’s [Medical Center]; they didn’t know what was wrong with me either.”
She spent a week there, then was released. But she was still acting confused. So she went back. She was tested for everything, including Zika, since she had been in Florida. The doctors couldn’t find anything so she was sent to Boston, where she was eventually diagnosed with the autoimmune condition.
Shea goes to Boston every eight weeks to get intravenous immunoglobulin treatments. Each treatment takes about four hours.
“Supposedly it’s a broad spectrum treatment,” Shea said. “They use it for lupus and other autoimmune conditions. It’s like blasting your body with antibodies; it gives a bunch of ways to fight infection.”
Shea would like to study nursing in college. Her top three college choices are the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown and Boston College. She will not play volleyball so she can concentrate on her studies.
She credits her teammates for helping her through the rough patches of the last year.
“They were my support system,” she said. “When I had hard days, when I couldn’t do any work or when I failed a math test, my teammates were there for me. They would talk to me.
“A lot of people didn’t know how to approach me. Apparently I asked what a lab report was and they didn’t know what to do with that. They did the best they could. I wasn’t myself. They understood that.”