Player battles disease, defenders

Samantha Wayne could have asked her doctor any number of questions after being diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus in May 2008.

But faced with an unpredictable autoimmune disease for which there is no cure, the Palo Verde High School student’s thoughts turned to basketball.

“The first thing I asked her was if I could ever play basketball again, and she told me, ‘No,’ ” said Wayne, now 16. “I asked her, ‘I have to play basketball; is there a way I can do this?’

“She just told me, ‘Go at your own pace.’ My life just changed from there. Everything is different now.”

Wayne, a 6-foot-1-inch post player entering her junior year for the Panthers, still plays basketball.

But points and rebounds in the paint don’t come as easily as they used to for Wayne, a former Fertitta Middle School star who made Palo Verde’s varsity team as a freshman.

The chronic disease attacks her joints and muscles, and she’s already coping with arthritis.

Wayne’s hands occasionally turn blue, she has trouble breathing and suffers pain in her neck and back. She practices outdoors in the evening to limit exposure to the sun.

“It’s really tough,” Wayne said. “Every morning I feel pain. It reminds me, ‘Hey, you’re sick. You’re not like everyone else.’ But I try to be normal.”

Though Wayne was not diagnosed until she was 15, her mother, Anne, said early signs of arthritis began appearing when she was 12.

“One doctor actually X-rayed her back one time because she complained of back pain, and he said that he saw some early signs of arthritis,” Anne Wayne said. “And (when) we took her back because our insurance changed we had to go to a different doctor, and he said he saw nothing.

“So we know it came on a lot earlier than last year.”

Though it also can strike men and children, lupus mostly surfaces in women of childbearing age, according to the Lupus Foundation of America’s Web site. The foundation estimates at least 1.5 million Americans have lupus.

Anne Wayne said Samantha has been treating the disease using a combination of drugs designed to fight cancer (methotrexate), malaria (plaquenil) and an overactive immune system (prednisone).

She also takes heavy doses of folic acid, Vitamin D and an herbal remedy called ginkgo biloba.

But a cure remains unknown.

“Every day there’s a new symptom,” Anne Wayne said. “She has neck pain, back pain … this week she had swollen eyes. The doctors don’t even know exactly what causes it.”

Meanwhile, Samantha continues to use basketball as an outlet. She plans on continuing her career at Palo Verde and, if well enough, hopes to play in college.

“(Classmates) tell me a lot of times that it doesn’t even look like I have lupus, which is a compliment,” she said. “I’m a strong person, some people say.”

One person saying that is longtime friend and teammate Nik-Nik Ameli.

“It’s an inspiration to everyone,” Ameli said of Wayne playing. “If someone gets tired, it’s like, ‘Hey, Sam’s playing. Pick it up.’ ”

Palo Verde coach Phil Clarke often utilized Wayne as the first post player off the bench last season.

“Some people may use it as an excuse,” Clarke said. “She is very strong-willed. If I wasn’t her coach and didn’t know her, I would never know that she was battling a disease like that.”

Wayne did not play last summer because she began taking myriad medications with possible side effects. But she eventually decided playing through the pain would be better than giving up basketball.

“She was determined in her sophomore year to come back and play in high school, and she did,” Anne Wayne said.

For Samantha, playing basketball with a disease that ravages the body — and can be fatal — is a daily struggle.

Which is why her family and friends have formed a team that will walk on Nov. 7 at Wayne Bunker Family Park as part of Walk with Us to Cure Lupus, a nationwide fundraiser put on by the Alliance for Lupus Research.

“Even though I don’t look sick, I’m fighting every day,” she said.