UMKC basketball player Aries Washington underwent an electroencephalogram after last season and prayed it would reveal something wrong with her brain.
“I did, I asked God if there’s something wrong with me let it show up on the test,” Washington said.
Frightened as she was, the unknown scared her more. Washington, then a sophomore, had to know why she felt like she did.
She had to know why her brain at times felt “frazzled,” and why she had difficulty concentrating. The problem started during the semester break, around Christmas 2015, and she played through it during the second half of the season.
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In June, Washington got the answer. She had experienced focal or partial seizures, which are common in temporal lobe epilepsy and affect a small portion of the brain.
Epileptic seizures are caused by a disturbance in the electrical activity of the brain. It’s common to think of seizures causing involuntary movements, violent muscle contractions and loss of consciousness.
That hasn’t happened to Washington. But she has experienced the symptoms of focal seizures that include a blank stare with no awareness of her surroundings, a change in vision and disorientation.
She tried to make basketball work under those conditions, while asking herself, “Why was my head doing this?”
Before the focal seizures, Washington became the first UMKC player to make a conference all-freshman team in five years. She started 22 games and averaged 10 points and five rebounds that season.
As a sophomore, she finished as the team’s scoring leader with 11.2 points per game while starting all 28 games, but as the season progressed coach Marsha Frese sensed something was off about Washington’s game.
“Where I first noticed it was in her eyes,” Frese said. “She always had a light in her eyes, but you could see a little of the spark was missing.”
On the floor, Frese saw that Washington’s reaction time occasionally slowed. Nobody knew what was happening.
“I knew she could hear me, I knew she wanted to be coached,” Frese said. “But then she had to process it through all these different filters and that’s when we noticed it the most.
“It scared me.”
Washington was a terrific get for UMKC, an all-state talent who played at North Kansas City High.
“We built the program on her,” Frese said.
But 1 1/2 years into her career, Washington became inconsistent, and before anyone knew exactly what was happening Frese was unsure how to proceed. Demand more? Scale it back?
Frese was in her fourth year at UMKC and had been in the college coaching business for nearly 20 years. Players go through slumps, but this was different.
The tests provided the answers, and as relieved as Washington was to know, she now had to cope with a new reality. Each year, about 150,000 Americans are diagnosed with the disorder. Over a lifetime, one in 26 people will be diagnosed with it.
For Washington, depression soon set in. And some of the medicine contributed to rapid weight loss.
Spirituality became her guide. Always a person of faith, Washington was baptized as a freshman.
“My relationship with God became very personal,” she said. “I learned how to pray consistently. It helped me through some difficult times.”
Frese was confident the team would become a support group, once they were told. Communication was important. According to the Epilepsy Foundation of Metropolitan New York, people with epilepsy can experience changes in the pattern and nature of their seizures. They could improve or worsen. Frese wanted the team to be prepared for any situation.
“She’s never had a full-body seizure, but it was important for us to talk about this,” Frese said. “We talked about how to handle a seizure if she was with them.”
There was also the matter of Washington’s performance on the floor this season. There was no doubting her career would continue
“Quitting or giving up was never an option,” Frese said.
Washington rolled up her sleeves, training like she never had and also watched more film of the person she’s likely to guard in a game. The idea was to improve her instincts, “so her body will do for her what her mind won’t in certain instances,” Frese said.
UMKC is 7-17 after a 62-53 victory over Chicago State on Saturday at Municipal Auditorium. Washington played 12 minutes and did not score Saturday, but she is averaging 8.0 points and 4.6 rebounds a game. Those numbers improve to 9.2 and 5.6 in conference games.
Washington has one year of college eligibility remaining, but basketball and sports will always be part of her life, and part of her message, along with focal epilepsy.
“I don’t know if it will ever leave me,” Washington said. “But I’ll probably always play basketball, always be around athletes, regardless of what’s going on in my head. My faith is strong. People can see you can whatever you want to do, even when things are tough.”