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Kindred kidney bonds Gator women's basketball team

GAINESVILLE — The sharp then persistent pain in her left side surprised her, but the fierce competitor in Azania Stewart wouldn't let her give in to it.

The 19-year-old freshman on the Florida women's basketball team had recently returned from Beijing, where she attended the Summer Olympics as part of a contingency representing her native Britain — the host for the 2012 Games. She had missed valuable time with her new teammates and was determined to get ready for the season.

And with no family nearby, she looked to her teammates for reassurance that whatever was wrong would run its course. Still, Stewart recalled this week: "Every hour I was getting worse."

One night, she left a study hall session early, went home and laid down. And things got worse.

"I just couldn't breathe, my heart was racing, everything," she said. "My roommate called my trainer and she came over to my house. She was trying to calm me down. Then she felt around and she pushed my back and that was it. I was screaming."

She was rushed to the emergency room at Shands at the University of Florida at Gainesville, where doctors discovered an infection in her left kidney and worse, it was not functioning.

"They hit me with a bunch of drugs to calm me down," she said. "I went through a bunch of scans, and then they did a comparison scan and they saw that my left side wasn't draining at all. I was filled up with liquids and it all went to my right kidney. My left kidney wasn't doing any of the work."

A tube was inserted to drain the kidney but it was determined after several days that the kidney had to be removed.

Thousands of miles and a five-hour time difference away from her London home, Stewart made the unsettling call to her mother, Jennifer Harris. "I was like it's time to call mum now because it's kind of serious," said Stewart, who came to UF from Notre Dame Academy in Middleburg, Va. "So I call, it's 4 a.m. there, and I said mum I'm in the ER and my kidney is kind of messed up and I might have to have it out. And she's like, 'What?!' "

Stewart's coaches and teammates were just as distressed. "It's hurtful when you hear your teammate is losing a kidney," freshman guard Tailor Jones said. "She's one of my really good friends. So when she was going through that, I could really feel her pain."

Teammates visited and tried to keep her spirits up with jokes, but laughing caused more pain. For second-year coach Amanda Butler, it was time to make good on her promise to the parents of every one of her recruits: treat them as if they are her own.

So the coaching staff assembled in Stewart's room every night, taking turns, and refusing to leave until she had surgery on Sept. 10, and was well on the way to recovering.

"We talk a lot in recruiting about how well we take care of our kids and a lot of people think that means providing them tutors and giving them brand new shoes," Butler said. "But this was really a chance to live all the things we talk. And there was no way that that child was going to stay in the hospital by herself. It just wasn't going to happen. Her mom wasn't here yet. Her dad (Dexter Stewart) wasn't here yet. So we made the most of it. She's just so enjoyable to be around."

The girl who says she most resembles the Snow White dwarf "Happy", but also is the super­hero equivalent to Catwoman, was strong throughout.

"She was so inspirational how strong she was," Butler said. "She wasn't nearly as emotional as I would have been or any other normal person in that situation. It was very easy to be there. She's got such a sweet spirit and is such a sweet kid. But there was never a question of doing it or not doing it. It ended up kind of being neat because we talked about a lot of different things that in a normal day we probably wouldn't even discuss."

Today, Stewart is learning to live with one kidney.

"I'm running on just the right one and it's a bit weird," she said. "I don't know if it's going to feel like this forever, or if it's just me healing, but it does feel a bit like filling in. Everything is filling in. So it's kind of weird."

Believe it or not, Stewart says what's most difficult is being away from the court. She has missed four weeks of conditioning and the Gators held their first practice Friday without her. She has been cleared for conditioning and lifting, but because this isn't a typical athletic injury, there is no set timetable. Instead, it's based on her pain tolerance and ability to regain her strength.

"I'm planning to return (this) week, but I planned (last) week and they are telling me to slow down," said Stewart, a 6-foot-4 center. "But I can't slow down. Everything doesn't seem the same when I'm not playing basketball. You complain that your body's hurting all the time (when playing), but when you're sitting on the sideline, it's just not the same for me.

"My school and my life, everything revolves around basketball. So everything's not flowing for me right now because I'm not out on the court. So if it means coming back, pushing myself hard, then that's what I have to do."

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com.

Kindred kidney bonds Gator women's basketball team 10/18/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 20, 2008 5:44pm]
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