Sept. 19, 2012
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
Click here to receive Gregg Bell Unleashed via email each week.
SEATTLE - Something tells me the first day of college classes next Monday is not going to be all that daunting to Katie Collier.
"No," the 18-year old deadpanned with a well-earned laugh. "I am not worried about that."
For the UW freshman, Sept. 24 represents something deeper, something far more harrowing than the first day of school.
A year ago this coming Monday, the McDonald's High School All-America forward was diagnosed with cancer in her bone marrow. She was perhaps a day or two from bleeding to death. She was initially told she had a form of leukemia that had a 60-percent chance of killing her within five years, even with treatment.
Well, here she was Tuesday, in Huskies workout gear on the edge of Harshman Gym inside Alaska Airlines Arena. She is perhaps the most accomplished and heralded recruit in UW women's basketball history.
She is certainly its most resilient.
The native of Covington, Wash., southeast of Seattle broke Seattle Christian's career scoring record last season - while doing what she was first told she'd never do again. The 6-foot-3 scoring machine kept pouring in points despite undergoing chemotherapy with regular injections of arsenic. She threw up at halftimes of games and was so exhausted after them that she would sleep for three days. After one game last winter, at King's High in Seattle, her mother found her lying on the concrete floor of the visiting locker room shaking from complete exhaustion.
"It's just weird to think it's already been a year," Collier said. "It's been a long year, but it's like, `Wow! It's a one-year anniversary.
"I'm just worried about getting around. Hopefully I'll be off my crutches by then."
Oh, yeah, those.
On July 30, in the first weeks after conquering cancer, just as Collier was finally herself again, she tore the anterior cruciate ligament, the medial collateral ligament and the meniscus in her right knee.
She was making a routine post move during a pickup game, a move she says she'd done "a million times." She heard her knee pop and crack during the first and only open-gym session the Huskies had this summer.
It was as unbelievable as it was unfair. For her, and for everyone who had seen Collier go through the previous nine months of fear, pain, constant nausea and debilitating fatigue from chemotherapy.
That was when Collier had her first why-me moment.
"I went through cancer. I went through chemo. I played in the McDonald's (All-America Game in Chicago) and felt so healthy, ready to go.
"Yeah, definitely. I was just like ... frustrated," she said on her second day of knee rehabilitation, eight days following reconstructive surgery. "I went through cancer. I went through chemo. I played in the McDonald's (All-America Game in Chicago) and felt so healthy, ready to go. We had our first open gym and playing the first 10 minutes of it felt so great. I was getting so excited.
"But then when I went down, it was ... it's just frustrating.
"I was just like, `DANGIT!'"
Collier says she had a plan of "OK, going to play this year, all four years. Nothing bad is going to happen."
"I just realize that you just never know what's going to happen," she said. "It's crazy. Everything that has happened to me has been totally out of the blue. I mean, this is my first knee injury. Ever."
The MCL is healing on its own. Her meniscus needed two dissolvable stitches to repair. A section of her hamstring became the replacement part for her completely shredded ACL.
Wednesday afternoon, she grimaced in pain as UW assistant athletic trainer Jennifer Stueckle pulled and grabbed and rubbed the knee. Collier hopes to be doing limited, on-court activities in six months, with full recovery in a year. That would have her back playing pickup games next summer, ready for preseason practice in October 2013.
But the Huskies' potentially phenomenal pairing this season of Collier inside with fifth-year senior Kristi Kingma outside is ruined. Kingma, the All-Pac-12 scorer, is back from her own ACL tear.
Yet despite all this, Collier is still smiling. She still looks the same as she did while becoming a national high-school star. Still with long, flowing, blonde hair she never lost despite chemo. Still seemingly game fit - except for the crutches at her side and the dark, thin, vertical scar being protected by strips of sheer surgical tape arrayed horizontally across her right knee cap.
More than angry, she feels empowered by all she's been through.
"Yeah, absolutely. I really do feel like I can handle anything," she said. "This is just so different, completely different than cancer. I'd say it definitely makes it easier for the recovery period.
"I can do this."
The Huskies just stand back and marvel at Collier's moxie, her sheer will.
Even before she's scored her first point for UW, Katie is one of the best Dawgs around.
"I've not been around someone with the type of resolve and the character that Katie has," said Washington coach Kevin McGuff, the former national-champion assistant with Notre Dame who then built a top-10 program at Xavier before coming to UW. "With everything she's been through and faced, the way she has persevered and maintained a positive attitude is just amazing."
McGuff took time during a recruiting trip Tuesday night to call me from Oakland, Calif., about Collier. He was gushing over her as a person even more than as the most skilled, touted recruit UW has maybe ever had.
"I don't think we could have a better person to build our program around for the next few years than Katie Collier," McGuff said.
Ann Collier is a recovery-room nurse at Valley Medical Center in Renton. That's the same hospital to which she took her youngest of five children on Sept. 24, hours before Katie was diagnosed with leukemia.
Mom doesn't sugarcoat how Katie's ACL tear flattened the already worn-out family.
"It was devastating, it really was," Ann said over the phone Tuesday night after her latest hospital shift. "We were all upset. We were kind of depressed about the whole thing, really.
"People say this to us all the time: `Wow. This is just too much.' And that's how we feel, too, after everything she'd gone through.
"Story of our lives. That's what we say around here now: It is what it is."
What it is has been more tragedy than any family deserves.
Ann Collier had breast cancer then beat it in 2009, though not without complications that also left her near death. Katie and some of her siblings missed "a lot of school," Ann remembers, to be with their mother supporting her at chemotherapy sessions.
Then last Sept. 22, the family was around the bed of Katie's paternal grandmother as she died. Colon cancer had metastasized into her lungs.
Two days after that, Katie was on her official recruiting visit to UW. On that Saturday morning, Collier awakened fellow senior high-school recruit Heather Corral from Vancouver, Wash., in their Seattle hotel room. Collier was bleeding from her mouth. Blood was all over her pillow.
Ann and her husband Mark, a regional manager at Whirlpool, were tailgating with McGuff and others before UW's football game that afternoon against California at Husky Stadium. Their daughter called to say her gums were bleeding and that she was wiped out, needing to go home.
I'm not a huge fan of doctors, which sounds funny now with me seeing one for, like, every day this past year.
At home Katie tried to sleep it off, but she was still bleeding when she got up early that evening. Her mom basically dragged her to a nearby urgent-care facility.
"I'm not a huge fan of doctors," Katie says, "which sounds funny now with me seeing one for, like, every day this past year."
But the urgent-care place was closed on a Saturday evening. "Score!" Collier thought to herself. "Let's go home now!"
She wanted to deal with it the next morning. Her mom had more prudent ideas, ones that saved her life.
While Katie stuffed her mouth full of every fast-food napkin she could find in the family car to try to slow the bleeding in her gums, Ann Collier took her daughter to the emergency room at Valley Medical Center. Katie spent much of the ride with her head out the passenger window. She spat so much blood down the side of the car her mother later wondered where all the dried-looking mud on the doors came from.
When the ER staff saw Collier's condition, they rushed her in past a throng sitting in the waiting room. Katie knew that wasn't a good sign. The staff put her through blood tests and could not find any clotting agents. Doctors later told the Colliers had they waited a day or two more to bring in Katie, she likely would have bled to death.
"Other people can be sympathetic when you have cancer. And so many people are so kind and compassionate," Ann Collier said. "But it's a whole `nother thing between those who have had cancer.
"Katie and I can talk about cancer and about death and about planning out our funerals in our minds, because she gets it. She gets the fact that she easily could have died that day she was diagnosed."
Collier was told she had acute myeloid leukemia, in the bone marrow. It has a survivability rate of just 40 percent within five years of diagnosis. She and her family spent the next day and a half, beginning late that Saturday night Sept. 24, thinking the worst.
The very worst.
"We didn't care if she ever even touched a basketball again," her mother says now. "We just wanted her to live."
She and Mark sent mass text messages to friends. Then Sunday morning, Sept. 25, Mark called the coaches at the schools to which Katie had narrowed her choices: Gonzaga, UCLA and Washington.
"We didn't know if she was going to live," Ann said.
Her voice trailed off, replaced by soft sobs.
"I'm sorry," she said. "It's just so dear to our hearts to know she had to go through that."
ARSENIC, AND MORE
That Sunday morning, Valley Medical Center transferred Katie to the UW Medical Center, across Montlake Boulevard from the Huskies' homecourt at Alaska Airlines Arena. UW doctors refined her diagnosis to acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL). According to the National Cancer Institute, APL is a distinct and rare subtype of acute myeloid leukemia. The incidence in the U.S. is approximately 600-800 per year in adults, and is rarer in children.
Doctors told Katie that APL is usually found in older, obese men.
So much for that.
Collier's first question to doctors: "Will I lose my hair?"
New treatments for APL within the last decade have increased the survivability rate from Katie's form of leukemia to above 90 percent following six months of chemotherapy. Those treatments include regular intravenous drips of arsenic, which it turns out doesn't affect hair cells as much as more standard chemotherapy does.
Katie had her arsenic delivered through a catheter port below her right collarbone for two hours every day, Monday through Friday, for three months at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.
Yes, arsenic. Think dCON.
"Exactly! I took rat poison, which is crazy!" Katie said, grinning that she is able to tell about it. "Everyone always says, `Stay away from arsenic!' And it was pumping through my veins. Crazy!
"October and November, it's still kind of a blur. I just slept all the time. My sister would drive me every day to treatment. I was SO nauseous. It was terrible.
"I wouldn't wish that on anybody. It was ...," she paused, "not a lot of fun."
She also took approximately 20 pills a day during the six months of chemotherapy, including anti-bacterial ones. APL was destroying her immune system, leaving her susceptible to infection. She spent a week in isolation at UW Medical Center. Anyone visiting her had to gear up in gloves, masks, hazmat-like suits -- and positivity.
An estimated 200 people visited Katie that week; "Even people she played against came to see her," Mom marvels. There were so many laughs coming out of that quarantined room other patients on the cancer floor came in, to thank the Colliers for bringing life to the specter of death. The security guards down the hall would see jovial teens and 20-somethings filing in and simply say without being asked, "She's in room 5127."
See, the treatment wracked Katie's body and bent her spirit. But it never broke either one.
"She certainly shed tears when she was alone, or with her sister Megan," her mom said. "But she is a MAJOR trooper, that girl. She NEVER complains, about anything. Her standard answer when all these people ask her is, `I'm good. I'm good'
"Lie, lie, lie!
"She just doesn't want to be miserable, or people to be miserable about her. She doesn't want to live in misery."
She hasn't. Katie has turned her cancer into her cause. She has made friends from repeated visits to the Ronald McDonald House and neighboring Seattle Children's Hospital just north of UW's campus.
"It's so cool to be able to relate to those people who are going through so much more extreme cases than I have," she says.
The bond she has with her mother is just about impossible to comprehend.
"Unless you've been through something like this, you can't really understand," Katie said. "But (my mom and I) do.
"To understand that death is really a possibility is crazy -- especially being so young, that someone my age or younger would have to think about this.
"We have a unique bond. Just going through chemo, we've both been through that. It's definitely brought us closer."
BECOMING A HUSKY
So why is Collier a Husky and not a Zag or Bruin? UCLA and Gonzaga wanted her just as much as Washington. And Katie and her family still consider the coaches of all three great people, and as friends.
Gonzaga's Kelly Graves visited UW Medical Center twice in the days following Katie's diagnosis. A few days after that was the funeral for Katie's grandmother. With Katie unable to even lift her head off the hospital bed's pillow, UCLA coach Cori Close flew up to be at her side so her family could leave for the afternoon to attend the service.
And Ann Collier specifically praises McGuff and his Huskies staff for always being there for Katie and the family - but also for keeping their distance when appropriate and not abusing the fact they were just across the street from UW Medical Center as a recruiting advantage.
Ann says she "absolutely" feared all three programs would rescind their scholarship offers once Katie was diagnosed with leukemia.
"We figured, `That's the end of it. No one is going to want this really sick girl to play for them,'" Ann said.
Immediately when they heard Katie's diagnosis Coach McGuff, Coach Graves and Coach Close all said, `It doesn't matter if she never plays basketball again. She has a full ride with us.' All of them.
"You always hear about college coaches being so cold, not caring about you once you sign. Well, immediately when they heard Katie's diagnosis Coach McGuff, Coach Graves and Coach Close all said, `It doesn't matter if she never plays basketball again. She has a full ride with us.' All of them.
"They were amazing."
McGuff called the Huskies' unconditional offer "a no-brainer."
"From what I'd gotten to know about Katie as a person and her character, that was an easy decision for me," he said. "She is just an amazing person. Any coach would want that kind of person in his program, whether she played or not."
Ultimately, Katie loved McGuff and his staff most. She loves their camaraderie. She calls UW her "dream school." And UCLA and even Gonzaga across the state in Spokane proved too far from the people who saved her life, who got her through cancer.
"For me it was just too far - especially with me getting diagnosed," Katie said. "In the back of my mind it was, `What if I get diagnosed again?' Say I got diagnosed again and I was away from my family. I just couldn't handle it."
Katie's siblings pulled her home. In particular, older brother Adam, 28 and in real estate, implored her to stay close to her family, just in case - though Katie said doctors have told her in the seven, relatively short years of the arsenic treatment for APL, no one has ever relapsed.
Katie's gift for Adam's birthday last year? Her announcement she had decided to attend Washington.
Ever optimistic and utterly undefeatable, Collier calls her ACL tear "perfect timing."
The way she sees it, she is now just another first-year player redshirting. That full year of recovery should end next summer. If all goes well, Collier will be ready for preseason practices in October 2013 as a redshirt freshman. Essentially, her Huskies career is just on layaway for one year.
Monday, her mother helped Katie move in to her UW dorm room. She is rooming with Corral. That's perfect: Her now-best friend also has torn her ACL - twice, while at Prairie High School in southwest Washington.
"It's so funny that we both ended up here now, and are rooming together," Collier said.
I asked Katie if she feels older than 18.
"Oh, yeah. I really do. Not just having gone through all that but just being the youngest of four siblings," she said.
"It was crazy that I was going through all that and I was still in high school. It was, `What's going on? I shouldn't still be in high school!'"
Now, it's an ACL tear.
"It's just frustrating, you know, to conquer cancer - and then have an ACL injury," she said. "I just have to tell myself, `OK. This is the last thing. This is the last obstacle that I have to play."
Though she's already gifted - physically on the basketball court, mentally and emotionally for staring down death before high school graduation -- I'd say life owes Katie Collier a break or three, don't you?
"I agree," she said with a breezy giggle. "I agree.
"Yeah," she added, nodding and smiling yet again, "that would be nice."
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.