Marist's 'Thunderfoot' overcomes rare condition

Marist's Lauren Kane could always picture it in her head: Having a state championship medal draped around her neck after the final tennis match of her high school career.

However, Kane never envisioned the gut-wrenching route it would take to get to the fairy tale ending.

Over the past year, Kane was uprooted from her comfort zone, had dreams of playing college tennis shattered, got diagnosed with a rare medical condition, wondered if she would ever walk again pain-free, and cried so many times that she lost count.

Yet, reflecting on the past 12 months, Kane says she wouldn't change a thing. "This overall experience has made me a stronger person. It opened my eyes to values such as patience and compassion for others, things I would've never learned this soon without my injury and trials."

Pain disrupts plans

Kane's journey through adversity began last spring in Columbia, Mo., where she was a heralded player for one of the state's top teams and had attracted attention from colleges. Her father, Dr. Steven Kane, had recently accepted the position as orthopedic chairman at Atlanta Medical Center. They would be moving over the summer, for the sixth time in the past 11 years.

She was given the option of remaining in Missouri for her senior year and living with her grandparents or best friend. She was leaning in that direction until playing in an USTA tournament in May 2008. She started having a sharp pain in the middle of her right foot, and it got worse with every match. Having played sports her whole life, she was familiar with pain, but something was different this time. She won the championship and mentioned the discomfort to her father afterward.

Tests revealed a stress fracture, and she was placed in a cast and walking boot for six weeks.

It was a big blow for Kane, who had planned to show off her skills to college coaches on the summer circuit. It was the most important summer of her tennis career, and it was gone. Devastated, she decided to follow her family to Atlanta in order to get the best medical treatment possible and hold on to her fleeting tennis dreams.

Rare condition diagnosed

Fast forward to August, when Kane had enrolled at Marist, which won a record 12 state tennis championships from 1995 to 2006. However, Kane began to wonder if she would play again. Her foot was only getting worse, alarming her father.

Dr. Kane contacted several national experts in foot injuries, and further tests confirmed the stress fracture, while also revealing a rare diagnosis of Osteochondritis Dissecans (OCD) of the navicular joint. There was deteriorated cartilage and bone, leaving a small hole in one of the most important areas of the foot for movement.

There had been only about 20 reported cases of this specific OCD worldwide and, in many of those, the prognosis was long-term pain and disability.

Kane had two options: Undergo a bone fusion, which would likely lead to future problems, or try an experimental treatment in which shock waves promoted healing to the bone. Kane had 3,000 electrical shocks to her foot in November and it appeared to be a success.

Despair and new attitude

The new girl, affectionately called "Thunderfoot" by classmates because they could hear her hobbling down the hallways in her boot, was walking on her own in January.

Kane was upbeat and encouraged by her rapid progress. However, everything changed at Marist's first team meeting for tennis. She finally realized her role might be no greater than cheerleader.

"We had a young team, and I wanted to be a senior leader," Kane said. "I felt like I had to prove myself to the other players on the court, and I wasn't allowed to do it."

It was the low point for Kane, who was so upset that she told her parents later that night she wanted to move back to Missouri to finish out the school year. Her father asked that she "give it a couple of more weeks."

After a brief period of self-pity, Kane decided to adjust her attitude. "I went to the practices and matches with a positive outlook, rather than think about myself and how I was looked at in the eyes of others.

"I reached out and talked to the other girls, and I realized I could still be a team leader, even if it was only from the sidelines."

Comeback on court

In mid-February, the outlook brightened.

Kane's foot continued to improve, and Frank Kissel, Marist's longtime coach, felt she had earned playing time. He started putting her in at No. 2 doubles.

"She won a lot of respect from her teammates, who look up to her as a leader and an inspiration," Kissel said.

The injury limited Kane's game to serving and booming volley shots. Since she couldn't cover the entire court, she didn't participate in singles. But with special shoe inserts, she could run forward a little, and that enabled her to play with a partner.

She posted an 11-3 record in doubles and won all of her playoff matches, including the Class AAAA championship.

"That day we won state, all of my fears and worries disappeared," Kane said. "I don't know if it has completely sunk in. I still can't believe I made it this far ... only a couple of months ago, it seemed impossible."

Kane said this week that her foot is at "75 percent" and can do most activities without pain. She plans to attend the University of Utah as a regular student next year.

Her father marvels about it all. "Nine months ago, she sat there on the couch and just wept with all that had happened ... having left her friends, her school and not being to walk without pain, let alone not being able to do what she loved most in the world. And all I could say was that I was sorry and that I hoped somehow it would turn out OK."

"Today, I think we have truly seen a miracle and sometimes dreams really do come true."