GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP - Che'Na Thompson thought she suffered from anxiety attacks in high school. When she played basketball at Salem High School, there were times she couldn't breathe well and her heart would race.
Thompson would have to sit until she calmed down.
She never went to the doctor because after a few minutes of rest, she was back to normal.
"I thought I was just too hyper," said Thompson, a 20-year-old sophomore guard at Richard Stockton College, which hosts Montclair State in the first round of the New Jersey Athletic Conference women's basketball tournament today at 1 p.m. The Stockton men host Montclair State at 4 p.m. in their first-round game.
"It was a self-diagnosis," she said. "Everyone figured I just had to calm down."
No one thought Thompson should get any sort of tests until she wrote on her physical for Stockton that her sister has the sickle cell trait. Thompson was told she needed be tested.
It turned out that she has the trait as well.
A person with sickle cell trait inherits one normal hemoglobin gene (hemoglobin A) and one defective gene (hemoglobin S). In a person with the sickle cell trait, more than half of the hemoglobin is normal. Normal hemoglobin are round, but those who suffer from sickle cell have some that are crescent shaped, which makes it difficult to pass through small blood vessels.
One in every 500 African-Americans are born with sickle cell disease, according to the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America.
While those with the trait don't normally have issues, Thompson has to still monitor herself because she is an athlete. The SCDAA doesn't have specific studies linking issues of sickle sell trait and athletes, but on its website it mentions studies done on military personnel who have overexerted themselves in unfavorable conditions and have developed problems.
The NCAA has decided to closely monitor athletes with the sickle cell trait and has developed a protocol for them.
The most important thing for Thompson is to stay hydrated. Since she has been diagnosed, she doesn't suffer from the "anxiety" moments that she had in high school.
"Basically, I have to know my limits," Thompson said. "The thing is, all these years I have been playing hard, but I just found out. Now it's on my mind and I don't want to push my limits."
Thompson made an immediate impact when she started for the Ospreys her freshman year. She averaged 11.1 points last season, which was tied for tops on the team.
Thompson is quick and can move up and down the court with ease. She also has a fluid jump shot but can also drive to the basket.
She's been one of Stockton's top players despite not putting up the same minutes as the other starters. Thompson usually plays four- to five-minute stretches and won't go longer than six minutes at a time.
This season, Thompson averages 21.8 minutes a game, less than any other starter on the team. But she is the third-leading scorer, averaging 9.9 points a game.
In Wednesday's regular-season finale, she played the first 5 minutes, 10 seconds of the game before her first break, which lasted more than a minute. Thompson injured her toe early in the first half, and Stockton coach Joe Fussner said she is questionable for today's game.
"Our training staff has been on top of this since last year," Fussner said. "There is a lot of information out there and a lot of things the trainers have to follow. We went through all the steps, what to look for, symptoms. There is a whole checklist. We reviewed that and signed off on it."
This is the first time in Fussner's coaching career he's had to monitor a person with such a medical condition. He's been with Stockton for 19 seasons and coached at Atlantic City High School prior to that.
"When it first happened, Che'Na was a little nervous," Fussner said. "But I think because she had it and played all throughout high school, it didn't hit her as hard."
When Thompson first learned of her condition, she was scared. She didn't know how far to push herself, but slowly she tested her limits. Now, Thompson has gotten into a groove and understands her body better.
Fussner can't always monitor how many minutes she is in a game because he's still trying to coach. That's when Thompson will signal for him to take her out.
Having to limit one of their top players causes complications for the Ospreys. Thompson is one of their best defenders. When she is out of the game, freshman Lauren Alwan takes over her defensive duties.
"The worst part from a coaching situation is her and Alwan take the best players," Fussner said. "If we have two players we have to go after, we can't do that switch off."
Last season, Fussner had the team's captains, LaTonya Oliver and Aliyah Nelson, research sickle cell disease and the sickle cell trait to help the team get a better understanding of why Thompson was limited in practices. Thompson didn't run suicides - an exhuasting series of sprints - and didn't participate in any timed drills.
Before the other players realized she was sitting out because of a medical condition, there were some concerns about Thompson's lack of participation.
However, the research gave the Ospreys a better understanding. Now her teammates also monitor her on the floor.
Oliver checks in with Thompson on the court and at times has told her to take a rest.
"It's not something she wanted to publicize because she didn't want to use it as a crutch," Oliver said. "You can tell when she's just tired and when it's starting to kick in."
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