The referee blew the whistle and the teams jogged up onto the court.
The scorching Indian sun was as harsh as ever, shining into my eyes as I took my place. This was the final quarter of the Annual District Basketball Championship. If we won, our school would get the trophy for the first time in ten years.
The captain of the other team passed the ball to her teammate. The game had begun.
Now if you have ever watched a game of basketball in the districts of India, you know how intense it gets. The little town of Dehradun took this a step further. There were old rivalries between schools that had been established for centuries. Each team fought for the honor of their school. At every competition we would attend in the coming year, our loss would be rubbed in our faces.
Unless we won.
I tackled the girl in front of me and got the ball. I raced down the court as fast as I could. My legs felt like jelly. I had been playing continuously for the past half an hour. I saw the basket, leaped and shot. The ball swished into the net.
Now if only we could keep the score this way. They came to our side of the court with the ball again. I put my hands on my knees, panting. My lungs were burning. I felt dizzy. But I straightened up as my opponent approached me.
She darted to the side and so did I. It was a trick.
She shot a three-pointer. Eleven-ten.
My coach was screaming unintelligibly from the side. My ears were burning. I should have seen that coming.
My teammate passed me the ball. I was determined to get that trophy. I charged towards the opposing team. I shoved past a defender and dodged a tackle. The basket was in my line of sight. It was a clear shot. But why were there two baskets? I hesitated, then jumped and shot just as someone slammed into me.
I was out before my head hit the ground.
“You have a bad case of anemia, kid.” said the doctor as he pulled my lower lid down. “Just look at this! Your eyelid is completely white! Not even a speck of pink!”
And sure enough, there wasn’t any trace of pink when I looked in the mirror and did the same.
For those who don’t know, a pale inside of your lower eyelid is the most visible sign of anemia. I didn’t know that then.
Neither did I know that due of my newfound medical condition, my cells were not getting enough oxygen during the match. I had passed out. We had lost the match. It could have been worse.
Anemia is a medical condition where you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen to all parts of your body. Symptoms include weakness, dizziness and easy loss of energy. In severe cases, heart failure and instant death.
I wasn’t told any of this. I googled it later. I was just given a bunch of iron tablets and sent along my way. No one blamed me for losing the match. We went back to practicing for the next tournament.
In the days that followed, I felt delicate; breakable if you will. Every time I would feel tired or I would pant slightly, I would remember missing that last shot. Then I would panic, wondering if I was going to pass out again and reach for my tablets. Of course, an iron supplement wouldn’t really help me if I did pass out, but that is all I had.
It became worse every time I stepped into the basketball court. Coach would make us do the same drills I used to do so confidently earlier and I wouldn’t be able to do them. I would get winded more easily. I would feel dizzy and weak. The more I would try to do, the more I disappointed myself.
Sometimes I wondered if it was all in my head; if I could somehow forget that I had anemia, would I go back to performing better on the basketball court? Over time, I came to believe that.
I became more and more aggressive on the court, as if that would make up for what I thought to be my weakness. One time, Coach took me off the court and gave me a stern talking to. He said “It is not how fiercely you play, it’s about your skills. Don’t injure your teammates just because you are frustrated with your own performance.”
I was hurt, sad and angry. And I blamed my anemia for it. I resolved that day to work hard to make sure that no one would ever question my skills at basketball. I swore that I would forget I was ever diagnosed with anemia. The doctor was wrong. It was all in my head and I was the one who could change it.
That night I threw the rest of the iron tablets in the dustbin and set my alarm to four o’clock in the morning.
From that day onwards, I did exactly what I promised myself I would do. I would wake up early and practice by myself for two hours till my teammates arrived. Then I would work my body hard for the next two hours as well. Later in the day, I would sneak away from school during recess to perfect my shots.
The results were far from what I had expected. Sure, I did get better at the game, but it seemed like my stamina was getting worse. I was also waking up more frequently in the middle of the night with excruciatingly painful cramps in my legs. I would fall asleep in class. My friends told me I looked paler. By the time the afternoon rolled in, I barely had enough energy to drag my feet back home.
These red flags should have warned me but they only fueled my anger against my own body. I would push myself harder and do more exercises. I would try and fight the pain and exhaustion with sheer stubbornness. My passion for basketball had reduced to an obsession to be better than everyone else.
For what happened next, I had no one to blame but myself. At this point, the level of hemoglobin in my blood was at its lowest. I also had a really low blood pressure. My eyes were circled by dark bags. I wasn’t doing too well at school. My teachers were disappointed with my grades. I didn’t even goof around and crack jokes with my friends anymore.
I felt like my life was slowly falling apart.
One morning when I was training by myself, my leg muscles cramped up. Tears sprung to my eyes followed by a surge of helplessness and anger. I steeled myself and got back onto my feet. I was not going to let anemia get the best of me again.
Then I made the stupidest decision of my life. I decided to continue to train.
I dribbled the ball up to the basket, ignoring the shooting pains in my calves. I jumped and shot. The ball swished into the net.
I almost screamed.
I felt my ankle twist painfully when I landed after the jump. My cramped leg couldn’t support my weight. My ankle was bent at a weird angle. I couldn’t move it.
My teammates found me crying on the court half an hour later and rushed me to the hospital. The doctor told me that I had torn my ligament. It was severe.
Coach pushed through the crowd of my friends as I lay on the bed. He took one look at my tear-stained face and said “Leave us. Now.”
My friends quietly slipped out of the room. Coach pulled up a chair, sat next to me and sighed.
“The doctor tells me you won’t be able to play anymore.”
I felt like a cold hand had squeezed my heart. My throat became all choked up. I couldn’t speak. Silent tears rolled down my cheeks.
Coach looked at me sadly. “You are my star player. And you have only gotten better since the last match.”
I shook my head. I still couldn’t speak.
“You drove yourself too hard child. Doctor told me that you have not been taking your iron tablets either.”
I just looked down. I heard Coach sigh, he wasn’t really a talker but he was trying.
“Listen, I’m letting you go. I don’t want to see you on the court again until Doctor tells me that you have been taking care of yourself. No, don’t look at me like that. You know you brought this upon yourself. An athlete always takes care of her body because it is her most powerful asset.”
I nodded slowly. He was right. I had abused my body and worked it too hard when I was supposed to take care of it. I looked up and met his worried eyes.
“You are an amazing player, child. I know you thought you let us down, but we have been proud of you and how far you have come. We always have been. Now, take some time off and take care of yourself.”
It’s been almost a year now. I am allowed to play basketball but not professionally. The ligament in my ankle is still weak.
However, I am having my iron tablets regularly. My lower eyelid is pink now instead of white. I have more energy and my grades have improved.
My relationship with my body is much healthier now. I know when to listen to it; when to push it and when to give it a break.
I also became Coach’s second-in-command. The juniors would look up to me and I would help them improve their game. It was so much more rewarding than winning any trophy.
I learnt my lesson the hard way. I still struggle with loss of energy. There are days where I forget to take my iron supplements. But I have made peace with it. It is exhausting trying to control what you cannot.
Every cloud has a silver lining. And mine was the extra time I had on my hands which I used to write. Today I am a health writer for online blogs and magazines. I help people know more about their medical conditions, give them moral support and encourage them to follow a healthy lifestyle.
I guess everything happens for a reason, right?