For many Yale athletes, sports provide a much-needed release from the stress of the high-pressure lives that so many Yalies lead. Yet for one Bulldog, sports are just another reminder of the disease that has changed her life and could take away her ability to play.
Ona McConnell ’13, a sophomore goalkeeper on the Yale field hockey team, suffers from myotonic dystrophy, the most common form of muscular dystrophy, according to McDonnell. She is still enrolled at Yale and is a member of the team. But, like other forms of muscular dystrophy, the disease causes rapid muscle deterioration, which could eventually result in a crippling lack of muscle control and, due to the loss of lung muscle, death. McConnell was diagnosed with the genetically transmitted disease about six months ago, and doctors have told her that her condition is one of the most rapidly deteriorating cases they have ever seen, she said. When McConnell was diagnosed, she was told that she had six to 10 years before the disease would affect function in her feet, a sign it was spreading. She has already experienced those symptoms. Doctors also said that in some, but not many, cases, patients experience pain; for McConnell, the pain is so great that she can hardly sleep or write.
Because of the lack of adequate funding for research, doctors are not only unable to find a cure for the potentially fatal condition, but they are also unable to treat this pain. Much of the discomfort is due to severe muscle cramping — most commonly seen in the patient’s inability to unclench a fist or loosen a grip — a reality McConnell must deal with every day as she battles not only to be a Yale student, but also to play the game she loves.
“The game has gotten very hard,” McConnell said. “I now may never get any gametime in the future, but after having this game almost taken away from me six months ago, I realized how much I loved it, and if I only ever practice, that’s enough for me.”
McConnell credits her teammates for providing support through the struggles.
“I wouldn’t have made it through last year without my teammates.” McConnell said. “I chose Yale because of the team — they’re like a family, and I know I always have something to go to when I need help.”
McConnell’s teammates have been equally as inspired by her.
“She hides it so well. We don’t even realize how much pain she is in,” Dinah Landshut ’12 said. “To us, she looks completely normal, and we can’t even begin to understand what she’s going through.””
After her diagnosis, McConnell refused to relinquish her grip on her future. McConnell and her mother began researching her condition, eventually coming across the Myotonic Dystrophy Foundation — a group for which, in just six short months, McConnell has now become the youngest board member and an administrative equal of a former Virginia governor.
Through her work with the foundation, McConnell has learned that scientists are an estimated 10 years from finding a cure for the disease, and that if it were not for a lack of funding, they might already have one, she said. While she cannot contribute to the research effort herself yet, the pre-med student and her teammates are determined to fund at least those who can. The team’s season opener on Friday against Sacred Heart has been dubbed “Get a Grip on Myotonic Dystrophy” night at Johnson Field, as the Bulldogs will not only battle the Pioneers on the field, but their teammate’s crippling disease off of it.
The Yale squad will sell T-shirts for $10 apiece, both at the game and outside of Commons on Wednesday and Thursday to support research for the disease. Donators of any level will receive a blue wristband to show their support for the fight against myotonic dystrophy. The team has also organized a “Goal-a-Thon,” in which those who wish to support McConnell’s fight can pledge a certain amount of money per goal Yale scores — an idea with potential for a team returning four of its top six scorers from one of the most prolific scoring offenses in the Ivy League last season.
The softball team has already pledged, and the Bulldogs are looking for as much support from the Yale community as possible. In that vein, the first 50 fans to arrive at Friday night’s 7:00 game will receive free pizza.
“I want to be active. I want to do whatever I can,” McConnell said. “The pain would be much worse if I thought I could do nothing. I’m trying to take things into my own hands.”