When the Yale field hockey team takes to Johnson Field Saturday at 11 a.m., it will be kicking off much more than its 2011 season. The opener against No. 20 Stanford marks the start of the second-straight year of the “Get a Grip” campaign, the team’s initiative to raise awareness and funds for myotonic dystrophy, the disease battled by one of their own, goalkeeper Ona McConnell ’13.
Starting Saturday, those teammates will be trying not only to improve upon a season that saw them score the second-most goals in school history (52), but also to increase the impact of their “Goal-a-thon,” a fundraiser in which pledges are promised for each goal the team scores. Those funds will go straight to researching treatment for myotonic dystrophy, which currently has no cure.
Last year’s campaign raised over $50,000 dollars for research for the disease, the most common form of muscular dystrophy that affects over 8,000 people worldwide. The disease causes muscles to weaken and progressively deteriorate in the heart, brain, gastro-intestinal tract, endocrine, skeletal and respiratory systems; this can eventually result in a crippling lack of muscle control and death due to the loss of lung muscle.
McConnell, 19, was diagnosed with the inherited disorder during her freshmen year. She said doctors have told her that her case is one of the most rapidly deteriorating they have ever seen. When McConnell was diagnosed, she was told that she had six to 10 years before the disease would affect function in her feet. She told the doctors that she had already experienced those symptoms the previous year. It was a sign, she said, of the disease’s unusually rapid spread.
Doctors also warned of pain and, unfortunately for McConnell, she experiences the symptoms severely as well: the pain is sometimes so great that she can hardly sleep or write.
The Berkeley resident hasn’t let the disease slow her down, as she has managed to juggle a pre-med track with varsity field hockey — and a position on the Board of Directors of the Myotonic Dystrophy Foundation. She made her varsity debut in last year’s “Get a Grip” kickoff against Sacred Heart, and played in three total games, not allowing a goal. She has spent the past two summers bolstering her medical school resume, working as an intern at Beijing Normal University after her freshmen year, and at Yale-New Haven in the neurology department this year.
McConnell’s ability to continue achieving despite what is often agonizing pain seems impossible, she credits her teammates with giving her the strength to keep fighting.
“My teammates have obviously been a great source of support,” McConnell said. “In every single way. Just the way everyone jumped to help in their own way: writing to alumni, making T-shirts, all that. I’ve gotten a lot closer to the team through all this. They’ve been amazing.”
“Field hockey’s getting tougher as I get weaker,” McConnell said. “But the closer I get to having it taken away, the more and more I love it.”