The Sarah Donley Story
By Chris Oates
“There’s times when I’m in class where I can’t focus on anything besides the pain in my arms and legs… I can’t even take notes so I’m sitting there taking the pain head on.”
Sympathetic, Caring, and Hard Working. Those are some of the traits professors, coaches, and friends on the campus of Shenandoah University have to say about Sarah Donley.
However, if you know about the things that she has gone through in her earlier life as well as her everyday life in college, you may just simply think of one word. Strong.
When Donley was just 13 years old, she was diagnosed with Acute Renal Kidney Failure, where both of her kidneys shut down.
“It was scary… I remember just being really sick at first”. Donley goes on to say that her doctors credit her mother for saving her life. “If it wasn’t for my mom’s intuition to take me to the ER, I would’ve been dead.
“The doctors at the ER didn’t really know how to treat what was going on so they sent me to a children’s hospital in Pittsburgh and they’re the ones who ultimately saved my life”
Donley spent the next 10 days at UPMC Children’s Hospital in downtown Pittsburgh, going through numerous blood tests to figure out what could be done to save her young life.
It was in those long and excruciating days in Pittsburgh, where she wanted to help change the lives of people in the days after her. She then created the Sarah Donley Sharing is Caring Fund that “ensures children have access to life saving medical care no matter what their family’s financial situation is”.
“I just think that everybody no matter who they are should get the help they need to save their life.” Donley says. And for her 16th birthday, instead of asking for presents like any of other 16-year-old would. She asked for donations to her fund and on that night, they raised over $2,800 to help children in medical need.
“I have everything I need, I was just blessed to be alive.” Donley says.
On February 24th, The Shenandoah Women’s Basketball team won the ODAC conference championship for the first time in 19 years. But it all comes with a price for Donley, who is the team’s starting point guard.
While also dealing with her kidney disease, Donley also has an extreme case of nerve damage which causes specific points of her body to go numb during times of the day.
“It started during my Sophomore year last year, at first it was in my feet and my hands, but then as the year went on and to today it spread to up my arms and legs”.
Donley goes on to also say that her basic schedule is similar to other student athletes on campus consisting of school and their sport. However, she faces each day in agonizing pain coming from her arms and legs.
“The numbing feeling spread everywhere, all parts of my body. And I just have pain everywhere 24/7… There’s times where I’m walking to class and stumble over my feet because I’m dragging them across the ground”
Donley goes onto explain the shocking feeling she gets in her arms and legs through just basic contact. She compares it to the feeling that people get when we get shocked when they touch certain things, but with Donley it comes with all contact.
“Every step it’s a shock going up my legs, every time somebody passes me the ball there’s shocks in my arms.
“There’s times at my house, usually at night, where I’m getting up to do something and I’ll just fall”
When asked about her concerns and doubts being so far away from her family and doctors during this time of health need, Donley says that last year was the time to have doubts because she wanted to know what exactly was causing her nerve damage.
“Now I’m more at peace with it, and knowing that we are someday going to find out what is going on… and accepting the fact that I have nerve damage. I have to live with the pain, but it’s not really the pain that controls my life, it’s the way I react to it”.
Being away from family can be a tough time on its own, but with adding a life altering condition is something somebody can’t do on their own. Donley has a lot of support who are more than willing to reach out a helping hand to her whenever she needs it.
Melissa Smeltzer-Kraft, the head coach for the women’s basketball team, is somebody Donley can lean on for emotional support.
“Sarah has done so much for our program, but I think as a coach, in the recruiting process you have to build trust within that person and grow a bond with them”. Coach Kraft goes onto say that she trusts Donley in the way she’s feeling.
“If Sarah asks me to sit out of running it’s not because she doesn’t want to do it… I know that she’s not feeling well.”
Coach Kraft goes on to give an example where Donley’s condition came full circle to her.
“I went with her to a Spinal Tap appointment, where she had to get fluid from her spine taken out with a needle and had to be tested… where if she were to move a certain way, it would cause complete damage to her body. I just looked at her and, in my mind, and was like ‘this girl is an inspiration’ and I couldn’t imagine going through that” said Kraft.
Like Coach Kraft, Donley has a great relationship with April Reed, who is the head Athletic Trainer for the Women’s Basketball team.
“For Sarah, she experiences this numbing feeling throughout the course of a day so there’s really no actual sudden feeling of numbness… Usually she lets me know as soon as she sees me ‘hey this is how I’m feeling’ so that I can be aware of how she’s feeling” Reed said.
During games and practice, Donley wears protective sleeves on her legs and her left arm to protect her from large amounts of contact. Reed explained that if Donley didn’t wear them and if she were to get hit hard enough at a consistent amount, she would suffer from complete nerve damage.
“There’s nothing that trainers can do to help me honestly, I just kind of have to suck it up… I can’t take any medication for it because it messes with my kidney disease, so I have to accept it” said Donley.
When asked about what she wanted people to know about her through her story “Nothing… You see somebody in class laughing or out with their friends having a good time you may think that everything is perfect for them when things aren’t what they appear” said Donley. “Even though I have all these problems with my body, I still wouldn’t trade it for anyone else’s… It’s mine, it’s a part of me, and it’s what God gave me.”
Photo by SU Hornets