By Alyce Collins
THIS NETBALL scholar’s dreams were crushed when she was diagnosed with THREE incurable conditions within a year that left her unable to walk.
Business science student, Letchen du Plessis (20) from Pretoria, South Africa, has always been a keen lover of netball and earned herself a scholarship due to her talent. Letchen hoped to move to the UK to play netball professionally, but three incurable conditions have made this an impossibility.
An unfortunate landing on the netball court in May 2017 led to Letchen’s hip popping and requiring the first of three surgeries and months of physiotherapy.
Following 10 months of slow progress, Letchen knew something still wasn’t right as she struggled to walk without pain. An MRI scan revealed avascular necrosis (AVN) in her hip, meaning the bone was dying due to a lack of blood supply.
This diagnosis crushed Letchen’s hopes of achieving full fitness again as she had to undergo three hip surgeries, the final one in June 2018 to drill into the dead bone to increase blood flow and slow down the bone’s destruction.
After spending two months bed-bound, Letchen started moving around on crutches but noticed that her left leg was ice cold, purple in colour and she couldn’t move her toes. The more weight that Letchen put on her leg, the more pain she felt until it became unbearable.
This extent of pain led doctors to diagnose Letchen with chronic regional pain syndrome (CRPS). CRPS can be caused by surgery and is considered the most painful autoimmune disease possible, often dubbed ‘suicide disease’ due to the extreme pain felt.
Despite being given medication to get her through the day, Letchen’s foot continued to lose function, eventually contracting into a claw. This led to Letchen’s third diagnosis within a year, a disorder called dystonia which causes involuntary movements of the body.
“I loved playing netball because I could challenge myself every day,” said Letchen.
“My life revolved around netball and I wanted to finish my degree and move to the UK to play professionally for a club.
“In May 2017 I was running towards the goalpost and my teammate threw the ball behind me. My left leg was already planted so when I caught the ball, I felt my leg go numb and my hip popped.
“I tried to shake it off and tried to continue playing but I knew something was wrong. I completely tore the labrum and a couple of hip flexors in my left hip, which had to be repaired by surgery.
“I spent three months on crutches and then went through rehab. In March 2018 I went back to the doctor because something didn’t feel right, and I was still in so much pain. I went for an MRI and got the diagnosis of AVN of the left femoral head.
“The doctor didn’t know why mine occurred, most of the time doctors don’t know why it happens.
“I had to have emergency surgery on my hip in June 2018 – I’m 20 years old and had three hip surgeries. The only way to cure AVN is with a hip replacement but I didn’t want one so young.
“I decided to have surgical decompression instead of a hip replacement to drill into the bone to reduce pressure and increase blood flow. So, I’ve put off a hip replacement for a few years.
“Two months after surgery I noticed my toes didn’t work. I couldn’t move them and my leg was cold and purple. The more weight I put on my leg, the pain got worse.
“Back to the doctor again and after every test imaginable, I got another diagnosis. This time, CRPS. It’s basically an unusual autoimmune response to trauma. The pain is equivalent to having had an ice bath and then immediately getting into a hot shower. I have this pain all day and night.
“The doctor prescribed painkillers which helped me get through the day but after a week my foot contracted into a full claw. That’s its permanent position now. I only had involuntary movements and spasms in my leg and back.
“Another trip to the doctor and an MRI of the brain and I was diagnosed with dystonia. It’s a painful movement disorder linked to the brain, causing repetitive twisting movements.
“My foot curls into a ball and it feels as though my toes are going to break. They make repeated movements up and down. The CRPS and dystonia might be linked but it’s speculation.
“The AVN makes the other two conditions worse because I will need a hip replacement but having surgery might cause the CRPS to spread over the rest of my body.
“No doctor can explain why it happened. That is the most difficult thing to wrap my head around, the not knowing part. Will it spread? Only time will tell.”
Letchen was diagnosed with all three incurable conditions within the same year, crushing any hopes she had of being a professional netball player in the future. Her goals have changed from playing sport at a professional level to just being able to walk.
At the moment, Letchen regularly sees various doctors and physiotherapists to discuss treatments and ways of progressing, in the hopes that she can eventually have her life back.
“I am on a Parkinson’s medication and strong painkillers at the moment. I see a neurological physiotherapist once a week and a bio-kineticist twice a week,” said Letchen.
“My bio-kineticist has been my biggest support through all of this and I don’t know where I’d be without her. She is running 10 half marathons in my honour this year because I can’t run.
“If all that doesn’t work, the next step will be Botox in the muscles which are contracting.
“The easiest thing to be in life is negative and make life as difficult as possible. Always be grateful for what you have, especially your health, and celebrate every accomplishment.
“When you can’t control what is happening, challenge yourself to control the way you respond to what is happening.
“There are a lot of ‘what ifs?’. Like what if I chose a different sport? What if I just came off the court when my coach told me to? You can’t live life being stuck on these questions.”
You can follow Letchen’s inspiring journey as she deals with three incurable conditions by visiting @letchen_dp.