December 18, 1997 in Sports

Body Unwilling, But Heart Still In Game

John Blanchette The Spokesman-R
 

Her third day in the hospital was the worst.

That morning Jeni Jones woke up to find that the paralysis which had started in her legs had spread to her side and her face - and that still there was no diagnosis.

When you expect doctors to have all the answers, “We don’t know” can be the scariest words of all.

Seven weeks have passed. On Thursday, Jeni Jones stood and watched her University of Florida teammates work out at the Spokane Arena on the eve of the NCAA Volleyball Championships - not just another spectator, but her ordeal and condition very much in the background the way she’d prefer. There was a ballcap tugged over her brow that shaded her eyes - and a half-empty longing behind them.

“I want to play - I can’t even tell you how much,” she admitted. “Being able to pound the ball, to block someone or dig someone - I see someone do it in practice and I just want to yell. Someone makes a great play and I want to do that. I want to be the one.

“This is just the best team and they’re having so much fun. That’s what I miss.”

She is a part of it, she knows, but she is also apart.

For 22 matches, she was in the thick of it - a junior starter at middle blocker for the Gators, who had climbed as high as No. 4 in the national poll. She had come up with big performances early on against powerful Nebraska and Notre Dame, but on Halloween weekend, a building fatigue finally pulled her down.

“I thought, ‘Oh, it’s a cold - I’ll take some Advil and I’ll be ready,”’ Jones remembered.

If it wasn’t a cold, she figured, it was something else easily explained.

She was checked into the university’s Shands Hospital “to be on the safe side,” she said.

But for the next few days, she never felt so unsafe.

“When it first started, it was just in my right leg,” she said. “The next day, it was in my left, the next day in the first two fingers of my (right) hand, the next day in more fingers. The first couple of days in the hospital, I’d wake up and have a new symptom. You can hear from an expert that it’s going to get worse before it gets better, but it’s discouraging to wake up with something new wrong every day.”

The numbness and tingling spread through her body and Bell’s palsy took hold of her face. One day she was using her 29-inch jump to slam balls across the net at opponents. Days later, she couldn’t sit up.

The trauma was shared by her mother and her teammates, who made ritual visits to the huge hospital room Jones called “the suite” - big enough for four beds and all the guests she could handle. Friends from the football team came, too, along with the entire women’s basketball team.

When they saw her at her worst, they had to hide the fear and uncertainty in their own eyes. As she improved, they helped her through the self-pity and frustration of not knowing what had done this to her.

Finally, a slew of tests ruled out everything but Guillain-Barre Syndrome, in which the nerves are attacked by the body’s defense system against disease. Cases vary in severity; Jones was told about 10 percent of the victims wind up totally paralyzed.

It’s rare, unpredictable, debilitating and confounding.

“For a long time, it seemed like a really long bad dream,” she said. “I’d tell myself that I was going to wake up and be fine. It’s OK to think like that for a while, but sometime you have to accept that, yes, it did happen and, no, you’re not going to play the rest of the season.”

Just walking was a chore; walking upstairs was impossible. And the wrong thing to do was try harder.

“Fatigue just makes the condition worse,” she said. “I’ve been in sports since I was 7, and you’re always encouraged to push through your fatigue and pain. This goes against everything I’ve been taught and believe.”

So rehab is done in baby steps. Doing a half-squat by herself or taking a flight of stairs without holding the handrail - or getting her smile back - are victories in their own right, as big as any of the 34 Florida has achieved on the court.

She can share in all of those, as well. Teams lose players through injury all the time - and if Jones had ripped up a knee, her teammates may still have stenciled the initials “JJ” on their shoes for inspiration.

But maybe she wouldn’t be so prominent in their hearts.

“I’m lucky,” Jones insisted. “I have another year left. I’m lucky I’m not in the hospital, hooked up to a respirator. I can walk and talk and I’m here, and I have a lot of good people looking after me.”

And perhaps looking up to her, too.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story:

THE JONES FILE

Name: Jeni Jones

Home: Birmingham, Ala.

Team: Florida

Height: 5-10

Year: Junior

Position: Middle blocker

Key 1997 statistics

Matches: 22

Kills: 90

Hitting Pct.: .149

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

This sidebar appeared with the story: THE JONES FILE Name: Jeni Jones Home: Birmingham, Ala. Team: Florida Height: 5-10 Year: Junior Position: Middle blocker

Key 1997 statistics Matches: 22 Kills: 90 Hitting Pct.: .149

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review


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