Studdert’s long way back for Sonoma

Sonoma Valley’s Annie Studdert, left, savors every minute on the court after losing a year to a mysterious illness that baffled medical experts. Photo by Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat

By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Swishing jump shots, pulling down rebounds, dribbling and passing as a guard in a forward’s body, Annie Studdert is an anchor for the resurgent Sonoma Valley girls’ basketball team.

As the Dragons (16-11) return to the North Coast Section Div. 3 playoffs hosting Hercules at 7 tonight in a first-round game, Studdert savors every minute on the court.

Playing with equal passion in soccer, Studdert’s competitive fire burns after a year lost to a mysterious illness that challenged medical experts.

“I appreciate my teammates more and just the beauty of the games,” she said. “When I get frustrated, I take a deep breath and just look at the atmosphere and that I’m part of it.”

Just going to class and enjoying a teenager’s life are routines the Sonoma Valley junior appreciates far more after debilitating headaches and back pains that made attending school and hanging out with friends difficult.

That she is back and even better both in sports and school reflects a maturity her coaches spotted in making Studdert a varsity player as a freshman two years ago.

“She’s come a long way back,” said Sonoma Valley girls’ basketball coach Sil Coccia. “She is a very mentally strong individual. She’s resilient enough to not only come back but come back and compete on the varsity level in two sports. That says a lot about her as an individual.”

Studdert’s journey began a month into her sophomore year. For three weeks she suffered flu-like symptoms as well as fatigue and chronic headaches.

A two-week stay at Children’s Hospital of Oakland is a hazy memory for Studdert. A battery of exams ruled out a long list of possible causes including viral meningitis, lupus, Lyme disease, and multiple sclerosis. But physicians couldn’t pin down the malady.

The headaches and back pain became periodic, yet didn’t cease. With their daughter enduring particularly painful bouts that Halloween, 2009, Cindy and David Studdert took her to University of California San Francisco Medical Center.

Experts there provided conflicting opinions. One was Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, featuring debilitating fatigue that keeps teenagers from normal activities. The other suggested the headaches, back pain and tiredness stemmed from an earlier infection.

“They just couldn’t come up with a virus,” said her mother, Cindy Studdert. “There was not a treatment. We tried the gamut of pain medicines.”

With the recurring pains and through the trips in and out of hospitals, Studdert struggled to carry a full load of classes. Attending school part-time and working from home, she managed to complete the fall semester, and with good grades.

“It was weird. I’ve been active my whole life. I’m busy, I’m going,” she said.
Playing soccer became too difficult.

“I’d practice, come home and crash and be out the whole next day,” she said.

After playing a tournament and a handful of nonleague games, Studdert couldn’t finish the season.

“She just wanted to get better and come back right away. She just loves to compete,” said Pam Wiley, who coached Sonoma Valley through this past season.

Given the waxing and waning pains and fatigue, Studdert began a so-called home and hospital program the second semester of her sophomore year. She received tutoring at home and did not attend classes.

Her attempt to play basketball was short-lived, lasting two games.

“For awhile I felt pointless. I wasn’t at school. I wasn’t on teams,” Studdert said. “It was a long time of not a lot.”

Living a typical teenagers life was difficult.

“I couldn’t go to sleepovers. I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “I couldn’t eat greasy foods. I couldn’t work out.”

Then in February she finally gained some hope.

The Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minn., took in Studdert for tests. The diagnosis was a dysfunction in Studdert’s autonomic network of nerves, with chronic fatigue the primary symptom. The treatment is a diet heavy in salt and multiple liters of energy drinks and water daily to boost her blood volume.

“I’m supposed to eat a lot of french fries. If someone tells me I have to eat french fries I’m totally OK with it,” Studdert said.

Exercise also is encouraged.

“After they said I could start working out I ran 20 minutes on the hotel treadmill,” Studdert said. “I had to put the pain aside and get myself better.”

Such perseverance surely helped Studdert through the pain and frustration, Wiley said.

“She has an attitude that I’m going to be OK. She’s not a victim,” Wiley said.

Her love of sports carried Studdert back off the sidelines. When she was feeling good enough to attend games Studdert watched from the bench in both soccer and basketball. At halftime she would kick balls or shoot baskets.

“It was hard. It was so frustrating that I couldn’t help my team,” she said.

Determined to play again, Studdert slowly resumed work outs after returning from Minnesota. She attended a soccer camp in May, and resumed practices with the San Juan club team in the Sacramento area a month later. Making the all-tournament team with the squad at a Temecula competition in August was encouraging.

Playing again for Sonoma Valley in the fall was another milestone in her return. Studdert pushed too hard at times, missing six games due to injuries, yet still she scored 5 goals and had 3 assists on the season that included a section playoff game.

“I guess it was too much too soon,” Studdert said. “I’m supposed to not go all out all the time, but that’s impossible for me.”

Such a desire to improve was also evident in basketball. She played summer leagues with Sonoma Valley alongside club soccer and was anxious for the beginning of practices in November following soccer.

“The girl has boundless potential. Every coach would love to have a player who has all the tools to play every position on the floor well,” Coccia said.

One of the Dragons top two scorers, Studdert also is second in both rebounding and assists.

More importantly though is Studdert’s approach to the game coming back from her lost season.

“She has a greater joy that she’s able to play the game,” Coccia said.

While she endured hospitalizations and more questions than answers, Studdert remained positive. As she noted, doctors through it all ruled out any life threatening afflictions.

“It was pretty tough. But in the grand scheme of things it could have been a lot worse,” she said.

The battle was difficult, but didn’t scar the ever smiling Studdert

“Now she’s a normal teenager, and happy,” Cindy Studdert said.

And her marks in school are even better, with a 3.7 grade point average.

“School is before sports. They were tied before,” Studdert said.

Putting on a uniform and lacing up a pair of cleats or high tops now means so much more to Studdert.

“For a long time I didn’t know if I would play again,” she said. “It was a long tunnel. I grew a lot.”