TAMPA — Kristyna Brabencova’s life took a drastic turn last February.
Instead of preparing 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 quick diagnosis she had expected turned into almost four hours of testing followed by a hard conversation.
She needed an MRI exam. 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,’ " said 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 Hospital that afternoon on Feb. 20. 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, educating themselves about a disease that is most common among white women of northern European ancestry.
Fanelli and associate head coach Michele Woods-Baxter 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 multiple sclerosis, 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 important 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 Specialists and Research Institute in Tampa, 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,” said Brabencova, now 21. “When the coronavirus happened, we stopped playing and everything.”
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With basketball on hold, Brabencova traveled home to the Czech Republic in May. She spent nearly four months there.
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. “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 soul-searching while home — 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 because of 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 searched the internet for Division I athletes who had had a similar diagnosis but could not find any her age who had played with multiple sclerosis.
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
USF has words to live by this season: work over talent, trust, inseparable.
The Bulls are 10-1 and ranked 14th, the 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 days 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 said she’s a better person since her diagnosis. Her teammates said she’s the same Brabencova they have always known and loved.
“(Brabencova is) 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,” said 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 hasn’t had to change much. She sees Fanelli daily so the trainer can wrap her ankles and make sure she is staying hydrated and 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 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.”
Contact Mari Faiello at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @faiello_mari.