Penn State York’s Molly York, a 5-foot, 10-inch junior, has been a huge help for her sister, Hannah, who has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. (YORK DISPATCH FILE PHOTO)
The York sisters — Molly and Hannah — have often assisted one another on the basketball court.
It goes all the way back to youth ball, then through high school at the Christian School of York and now at the collegiate level at Penn State York.
But perhaps the greatest “assist” the two have shared hasn’t even come on the basketball court — it was when Hannah was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) back in 2011.
Since then, the sisters have dealt with the disease’s symptoms — which caused them to drop out of college and question whether their dream of continuing to play basketball together would be possible. The unknowns about MS — how Hannah actually got it, if it was hereditary and how it would impact Hannah — caused the entire family a great deal of unease.
“My mom asked the doctor if this is something that (the whole family) should be tested for,” Molly said. “But it’s not like that. Some people just get it and some people don’t and they’re not exactly sure why.”
The start: It started back when Hannah, a year younger than Molly, was a junior at the Christian School of York. There was about a two-week period where she didn’t feel quite normal. She was constantly sick and felt worse if she tried to walk around. Her doctor diagnosed the problem as an inner-ear infection and prescribed medication that eventually alleviated the symptoms.
After that, Hannah never gave much thought to it. She was symptom free for a few years, which is often the case with the type of MS (relapsing-remitting) she has been diagnosed with.
But late in the summer of 2011, before she was set to attend her freshman year of college at St. Mary’s (Maryland) with Molly, then a sophomore, Hannah felt a lot of numbness in her arm. That was concerning, because she discovered a serious burn on that arm, which she was completely unaware of. A series of tests from her physician ensued over a couple of weeks to try to figure out what was wrong.
The diagnosis: After ruling out many other possibilities, the final diagnosis eventually came down — Hannah had MS.
MS is an inflammatory disease that impacts the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Over time, the damage can disrupt the ability of parts of the nervous system to communicate, leading to a wide range of symptoms.
Not knowing exactly what MS was at that point, the sisters were admittedly a little scared.
“I remember when she was still in the MRI machine, and the doctor that diagnosed her, who we’ve known since we were little girls, came out and told us,” Molly said. “He (the doctor) was so somber and he said ‘she (Hannah) has MS and it’s pretty bad’. And before that, I hadn’t even heard of MS. I mean, I heard of it, but I didn’t really know much about it. So I was like, ‘oh my God! She’s going to die.’ It was really scary.”
Molly ‘assists’ her sister: Since that diagnosis three years ago, Molly has been “assisting” her younger sister in many ways. She has made it a point to be at every one of Hannah’s neurology appointments. She’s been there for Hannah when she needed to have her injections – giving them even though Molly herself is afraid of needles — when they were briefly at school together at St. Mary’s.
“It’s almost like we’re twins, but we’re not,” Hannah said. “We’re a year apart, but she’s always been there for me. For me, it’s like having another head. If she’s not there, it just doesn’t feel right. She gives me so much strength and support. It’s good to have that one person that you can really lean on.”
“I just feel like I need to be there for her for everything,” Molly said.
A true bond: While Hannah is the one with the disease, it’s become like the two are sharing the disease together. They even have matching orange charm Pandora bracelets — the official color of MS — that they wear. They were Christmas presents from a year ago.
“It’s like Molly has it vicariously through me,” Hannah said. “She’s just so connected to me.”
While the two are feeling good about their lives right now, they remember the troubles the disease caused them a few years ago. The two — jointly — made a difficult decision to drop out of college when the stress of the situation got to be too difficult to handle.
St. Mary’s is a small liberal arts college located in the most southern part of Maryland, a near 3½-hour drive from York. And while they tried to drive home when they could, it was just too rough on both of them.
Then there were the shots, one of which needed to be injected every day, which caused welts and other side effects that left Hannah sometimes nearly incapacitated for 24 hours afterwards.
Heading home: So the sisters decided it was time to come back home for a couple of months and regroup.
“Part of the reason we dropped out was because of my MS,” Hannah said. “I was having a lot of trouble with the injections, and part of it was that I was away from my parents and I really needed a lot of support. And (Molly) really did a lot for me. I mean, it’s like we do everything together. It was kind of like she was experiencing everything with me.”
After things normalized, the two decided to stay closer to home. As it turns out, Penn State York offered a perfect fit — a small school that was close to home, that also met both their academic and athletic needs.
“Yeah, so that’s how we ended up here,” Molly said.
Living a normal life: While the disease can leave some physically handicapped, Hannah’s case is perhaps the least severe of the different forms. Thus she has been medically cleared to continue her basketball career, a decision that has helped to keep her daily life relatively normal.
“Basketball has always sort have been my social life,” Hannah said. “So I just try not to think about it. As long as I can play I just try not to think about it.”
Excelling on the court: Just by looking at Hannah, a 5-foot, 11-inch, sophomore forward, it would be difficult to guess that she suffers from the disease. She currently leads the Nittany Lions (2-6 overall) in scoring at 15.2 points a game, seventh best in the Penn State University Athletic Conference (PSUAC).
Part of the reason that not many know about her disease is that she — like many others who have it — chooses to keep it that way.
“People don’t talk about (it),” Hannah said. “Because you look so healthy and your physical manifestation is fine. Until now, I’ve told maybe 20 people. Like I didn’t even tell (Penn State York women’s basketball) Coach Bob (Heiser) or (Assistant Coach) Terri (Van Slyke). They actually read it on my physical. I was like, ‘oh, if they ask me about it then I’ll bring it up, but if not then there’s no point unless obviously I have symptoms.’ So yeah, for people like me, we don’t really talk about it.”
And when she does talk about it, it is often in a non-serious manner.
“I’m kind of cynical about it,” Hannah said. “I make jokes, and sometimes I’m around people that don’t know and I’m like, ‘Oops. Surprise!’ You just have to keep light about it. And for now I’m healthy, I can walk, I can talk and I have no problems and no symptoms. So it’s just kind of there and I’m managing it.”
The outlook: The outlook of her type of MS could mean she’s symptom-free for up to 10 years, although her first relapse was a little less than three years. The type of medication (Aubagio) that she is now taking comes in pill form, making the need for those scary injections a thing of the past. While Aubagio doesn’t really prevent symptoms, it does help to prolong the period in between outbreaks, which is what Hannah is hoping will happen from now on.
In the meantime, Hannah plans to continue to be on the basketball court at Penn State York doing what she has become quite good at.
And so will Molly, who will always be there looking to “assist” her sister in any way that she can.
— Reach Ryan Vandersloot at firstname.lastname@example.org.