New Castle News

March 19, 2013

March Madness: Former Lady ’Canes’ star battling illness head-on

David Burcham
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Jaleesa Sams knew something was terribly wrong.

But the former New Castle High School and North Carolina A&T basketball star prides herself in having a high tolerance for pain. Even when she was throwing up and too fatigued to get off the couch, Sams was determined to tough it out.

She had awakened earlier that Jan. 26 morning with no feeling on her left side. But the current grad assistant coach at A&T attributed that to possible after effects of participating with players in a strenuous team drill the night before. Jaleesa thought she might have a slipped disc or a pinched nerve.

But then there were the flu symptoms.

“I’m not the type of person who gets sick very often,” she said.

Sams called her mother, Donna, who after hearing all the symptoms described, urged her daughter to get to the emergency room.

“I was more scared than anything, Jaleesa said. “I’d never had anything this drastic happen to me.”

Losing sight in one eye convinced Jaleesa this was not a pain tolerance issue. She needed friends to carry her from her house to the car for transportation to Duke Medical Center.

After some testing, Jaleesa was given a spinal tap. It was then doctors discovered the problem — Multiple Sclerosis. The disease was in Jaleesa’s genes as her late maternal grandmother has suffered from it.



THE CHALLENGE

MS is an autoimmune disease that affects the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system). According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine website, MS is caused by damage to the myelin sheath, the protective covering that surrounds nerve cells. When this nerve covering is damaged, nerve signals slow down or stop.

MS affects more women than men and is most commonly diagnosed between ages 20 and 40.

There is no known cure for multiple sclerosis, but there are therapies that may slow the disease. The goal of treatment is to control symptoms and help maintain a normal quality of life.

Jaleesa fits the description of those who have best outlook. That would be females under 30 with infrequent attacks.

While most return to normal or near-normal function between attacks, there can be a greater loss of function and some will later require a wheelchair.

But anyone who thought such a blow would overwhelm Jaleesa, doesn’t know her. “I’m not going to let it get me down,” she said. “It can cripple you, but I’m so blessed because they caught in the early stages.

“If I continue to eat healthy, I can have a full life,” she said.



BETTER NEWS

She returned to the hospital four weeks after the initial diagnosis. “They said I’m making a miraculous recovery,” Jaleesa said. “I’m gaining strength on my left side and walking in heels again.”

Jaleesa said her mother prepared her for such trials.

“She’s handling it so well,” said Donna, who has given her daughter a foundation of spiritual and physical strength to build upon.

“Jaleesa, who turned 24 this month, believes she may have missed earlier symptoms during the past few years. “When I worked out, my legs would be numb or go tingly for an hour and I would feel faint,” she said. “I thought I was just overworking myself and didn’t pay any attention to it.”

She enjoys her role as grad assistant on the staff of Tarrell Robinson, who recruited her out of New Castle High School six years ago. She got into coaching last year, serving as an assistant at Southern Guilford High School. She prefers coaching on the collegiate level.

Considered one of the best high school basketball players from western Pennsylvania, Jaleesa averaged 19 points per game and led New Castle to the WPIAL Class AAAA championship in her senior year. She had five triple-doubles, including a game in which she scored 27 points, 15 rebounds and 10 steals to go with five assists. In a WPIAL playoff game, she scored 23 points, grabbed 20 rebounds and had eight steals.

A four-year varsity starter, Sams scored 1,909 points for the Red Hurricane and was a two-time Associated Press PIAA first-team performer.

Sams was the highest rated high school recruit to sign with the women’s basketball program at A&T, ranked as high as No. 31 in the nation among high school prospects by Scouts.com. She had one of the most successful careers in A&T history, reaching postseason play all four years, winning three regular-season titles and making three NCAA tournament appearances.

“Jaleesa faces challenges head-on and that’s always been her way,” said Luann Grybowski, her high school coach. “She was the hardest worker in practice.”

“She can set an example for others,” said Grybowski, who stays in contact with her former player. “She did that in athletics and I know she will continue to that.”

(Email: d_burcham @ncnewsonline.com)