- Associated Press - Saturday, January 23, 2021

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - Kristyna Brabencova’s life took a drastic turn in February.

Instead of prepping for a game at Memphis with the USF women’s basketball team, the freshman wing sat in a doctor’s office at USF Health. Persistent blurred vision had led Brabencova to an ophthalmologist, but the expected quick diagnosis instead turned into almost four hours of testing followed by a hard conversation.

She needed an MRI. Immediately. No waiting until the team returned from its weekend road trip.

Doctors didn’t think the issue was Brabencova’s eyes; it was her head.

“I started thinking, ‘Oh, that doesn’t sound good,’” recalled Brabencova, who is from the Czech Republic. “My first language is not English and I was like, I need to focus (on what they’re saying).”



She knew the conversation wasn’t heading in a favorable direction. So did Bulls associate athletic trainer Anita Fanelli, who had accompanied Brabencova to the appointment.

“That was the, ‘Oh, my God,’ moment,” Fanelli said.

Brabencova was admitted to Tampa General that Feb. 20 afternoon. After days of testing, including a spinal tap, her diagnosis was confirmed: relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis, the most common form of the autoimmune disease.

A PROMISE FROM HER TEAM

Jose Fernandez has been a coach at USF for 20 years. Fanelli has been in sports medicine for 34 years.

“(But) there’s no playbook for this,” Fernandez said. “You don’t think to prepare for something like this.”

Players and coaches rallied around Brabencova from the start, self-educating themselves about a disease that is most common among Caucasian women of northern European ancestry.

Associate head coach Michele Woods-Baxter and Fanelli went to the first appointment after Brabencova’s diagnosis. They all had to be on the same page.

“We all wanted to be in on it so we all knew what we were looking at,” Fanelli said.

The team learned that Brabencova had a mild form of MS, one that could be managed with a treatment plan. Additional testing would be required to figure out which medications would suit her best.

And most importantly for Brabencova’s immediate future, she was told from the start that basketball was never off the table.

A SUMMER OF SOUL SEARCHING

Brabencova’s treatments started amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Due to health and safety protocols at the Florida Cancer Center, her mother, Jana, could not be in the room with her for her first infusion of IV medication. Brabencova sat alone for four to five hours.

“It was tough at first,” she said. “When the coronavirus happened, we stopped playing and everything.”

With basketball on hold, Brabencova traveled back home to the Czech Republic in May. She spent nearly four months there, but it was not a seamless transition.

No one knew how to talk to Brabencova about her diagnosis. And avoiding the subject led to tension that the family had to work through together.

“I told my parents I would rather talk about it than not say things,” said Brabencova, now 21. “And they told me I needed to realize these things goes both ways because for other people it may be hard to talk about because they don’t know how you would take it.”

Brabencova did some soul searching that summer - her first basketball-free summer that she can recall - wondering if it was worth returning to USF and if this was the path she was meant to be on.

When it came time to return to campus in August, her parents found it difficult to let her go. But thanks to the time Jana had spent in Tampa with Brabencova when she was getting treated, they knew she was in good hands.

“It was really hard to say goodbye the second year because now I’m more scared about something happening,” her mother said. “But now I know if something happens, they’ll take care of her. I’m really thankful for that.”

Brabencova had another important reason to continue her basketball career.

While at Tampa General, she had Googled Division I-A athletes with a similar diagnosis, but could not find athletes her age who had played with MS.

She needed to know that she could compete again.

“It was more of a mental thing in my head,” Brabencova said. “Everybody has something they don’t talk about getting through things or like pain and stuff. There’s no reason for me to stop doing what I can do, and it made me realize to be happy that I can (play) now because there can be times (in the future) where I cannot (play).”

A TAMPA SUPPORT SYSTEM

The USF women have these words to live by this season: work over talent, trust, inseparable.

The No. 14 Bulls are 10-1 with their highest ranking in program history. Brabencova, who averages around 16 minutes and 5.9 points per game, has been symptom free during her sophomore season.

Teammates have figured out how to approach her on the good and bad days.

“She was kind of figuring (things) out, as well as we were, about how to talk about her health, how to fight with that because she has many days that she doesn’t feel good,” redshirt freshman guard Mihaela Lazic said. “I just think from my perspective, how I felt, I told her, ‘Hey, I’m here for you.’ Just one minute to talk, and she feels better.”

Brabencova says she’s a different person, a better person since her diagnosis. Her teammates say she’s the same Brabencova they have always known and loved.

“Broby’s a fighter,” Lazic said. “She’s been through so much. And I realize that she needs us. She taught me that anything you go through just makes you stronger. She’s been a motivation to so many people out there.”

“She’s really strong handling this on the best level possible,” added redshirt junior center Tereza Vitulova, a Czech Republic native who grew up playing with Brabencova. “She’s working so hard on the court and outside of it, dealing with all of this, and no one can imagine what she’s going through.”

Brabencova’s routine really hasn’t had to change that much. She sees Fanelli daily so the trainer can wrap her ankles and make sure that she is staying hydrated in addition to getting enough rest.

Other than that, it’s business as usual.

Brabencova has opened up more to people, sharing her thoughts and truths instead of pretending everything is okay all of the time. She is trying to let go of needing to control everything. And she’s better at expressing her feelings.

“My new motto is every time it can be worse,” she said. “Somewhere, someone it can always be worse. I just do me every day and try to keep it positive. I have people around me who help me a lot through this.”

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