Erica Rapp: Giving Up The Sport When It’s The Last Thing You Want To Do

Feature by Michelle Berman, Swimming World intern

PISCATAWAY, New Jersey, September 3. ERICA Rapp, 20, knows the struggles of being a Division I athlete. But, what set her apart were her struggles which weren't growing pains or plateauing, both common to up-and-coming athletes. What Rapp dealt with was far greater than any of those – life-threatening illnesses.

Rapp started country club swimming in her hometown of Hershey, Penn., at the age of 5, and started club swimming at the age of 8. She swam for the Hershey Aquatic Club until she was 18 years old. Rapp's senior year of high school she won Districts for the first time in 100 back. At states, Rapp got second in the 100 back and eighth in the 50 free and was also on two relays.

In 2008, she joined the William and Mary's women's swimming and diving team in Williamsburg, Va., in hopes of having a successful and healthy four years. But for Rapp, those four years didn't exactly go the way she had planned.

"I was diagnosed at age 2 with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), and have been dealing with it to this very day. I have had about 7 cortisone shots and 3 drainings in my life," Rapp said. "Right now, I take a daily pill but also go monthly to the infusion center to get an IV of Orencia."

Orencia is used to treat symptoms of RA. Orencia is not a cure.

Throughout Rapp's years of high school swimming, she suffered minimally and would only have to take minimal amounts of time off. She always managed to bounce back by Mid Penn conferences as well as states and districts.

When it came to college swimming, things changed.

"College was a different experience," Rapp said. "Freshman year, I had been dealing with severe arthritis pain in the fall, even started having chest pain and swelling in my hands and feet. Everyone had told me that I was crazy, and it was nothing."

Rapp and her teammates went on a training trip to West Palm Beach, Fla. It was there that things worsened. On the third night of the trip in the middle of the night Rapp called her coach.

"I explained to him that I was in serious pain from the waist down and was paralyzed."

The doctors didn't know what was wrong, and they couldn't explain it.

Rapp's mother decided that at the conclusion of the training trip her daughter should come home and see her arthritis doctor Dr. Barbara Ostrov. Ostrov administered an MRI on Rapp's spine and discovered a cyst near the bottom. Rapp's mother wanted a second opinion.

"She took me to a Women's Oncology Specialist who decided it was a large ovarian cyst, and that I needed surgery immediately," Rapp said, "But we also went to an OBGYN who said that the cyst had already burst, and that the only thing to help control it now was to go on birth control."

Rapp went on birth control and her mother then decided to send her back to school in time for spring semester.

The birth control that Rapp took seemed to make things better but the side pain and sickness began again shortly after. A teammate of Rapp took her to the emergency room.

"The ER doctor told me that there was nothing wrong with me, and asked why would I even come in, this is an ER for sick people," Rapp said.

Rapp thought that the year would end the way it always had for her before. She'd get sick, feel really bad, but when it came to racing at her championship meet she would always rock it. But as Rapp said, "I had no idea how different this year would be."

Two days before leaving for William and Mary's conference championship meet at George Mason University in Virginia, Rapp began feeling extremely sick and nauseous. The day the team left, she threw up everything she tried to eat.

"On the bus, it seemed like I had the plague. No one wanted to go to near me or touch me. I had been throwing up the entire bus ride," said Rapp.

When the team arrived, Rapp sat off by herself in the corner and slept. When the team returned to the hotel, teammate Lisa McDevitt helped Rapp up to her room. Head coach Matt Crispino told Rapp to keep him updated on how she was feeling.

"I woke up the morning of the meet feeling like CRAP. I began throwing up green stuff that was not food."

Rapp's mother was on her way down from their hometown in Pennsylvania, and told her daughter that she was getting closer and closer to being there.

"I would drift in and out of sleep only to wake up and throw up. It got to the point where I was unable to have my phone on vibrate, the vibrations made my severe headache even more unbearable. I also, couldn't even have the blinds or television on."

Rapp's mother eventually came and continued to try to get Rapp's energy replenished.

"But, this time, she knew it was different," Rapp said. "As I slept, she watched some television. There was a news report about someone who had just died from the flu. She figured it was time to take me to the ER."

It was 4 a.m. on Feb. 26 when Rapp's mother took her to the Satellite ER for INOVA Fairfax in Virginia. The situation escalated. Preliminary tests showed a Urinary Tract Infection. However, Rapp was in no pain whatsoever. Rapp had begun to drift in an out of consciousness.

"I woke up in my mom's car with an IV in my arm," Rapp said. "She was driving me to the main hospital ER. After this point, I don't remember a lot. I remember waking up in the ICU and getting a spinal tap and a central line in my neck. There were so many doctors, and none of them could figure out what had happened. They decided to put me on fluids and all sorts of drugs and steroids. As I lay there, I began to feel extremely swollen, I called for my mom and she yelled for a doctor."

The doctors had discovered that the nurse had forgotten to put a catheter in and Rapp's system had begun to back up from lack of urination. She also had developed double lung pneumonia.

However, at this point none of the doctors had been able to nail down exactly what the initial reasoning was for Rapp's pain. Her mother insisted on getting an MRI of Rapp's brain. After the MRI, things worsened.

"After the MRI, I had to be put on a ventilator because I was failing quickly. My mom even had a priest give me my last rites," Rapp said about one of the scariest times of her life.

The results of the MRI showed that Rapp had Cavernous Sinus Thrombosis, which is a blood clot in the sinus cavity. The scariest part of this discovery may not have been the diagnosis itself, but possibly the fact that as she was learning of her diagnosis she was looking at the clock in the room but was completely unable to see it.

"My eye had drifted inward and become paralyzed, which gave me double vision. The doctors then declared that I had 6th nerve palsy."

At this point in Rapp's roller coaster experience, they decided to bring in an ear nose and throat specialist to be certain that she would take every precaution necessary. The doctor decided to schedule surgery the very next day. He told Rapp that if anything went wrong he would helicopter her to University of Penn to another specialist.

The surgery was a success, and after two weeks of being in the hospital Rapp finally got to go home.

"I left the hospital with a midline in my right arm, which is a port so that I could give myself an IV of antibiotics. I also had to give myself blood thinner shots three times a day."

Rapp took a few months off from the water, and when she was finally able to return she had about a month to train before senior champs.

"Obviously I didn't do amazing, but I did okay," Rapp said.

Rapp still suffered with double vision and paralysis, but definitely was able to overcome the obstacle.

At the end of Rapp's freshman year at William and Mary, she decided to return for her sophomore season with the Tribe.

"I swam up until December when I made the decision to quit," Rapp said. "I no longer felt the same in the water, and I had been in severe pain after going off of all my medication. Today I am happy and healthy, only dealing with my Arthritis and my double vision, which is not as severe."

All in all, Rapp is simply a brave athlete who decided to put her health before her love for her sport. I asked Rapp to tell me what she would say to someone going through a similar situation.

"It was just really hard having doctors, coaches, and parents not believe something was wrong, and I want people to keep trying if they are having problems, especially kids, because no one believes kids."

Rapp ended by saying, "Have a positive attitude, and believe you can do anything."

Michelle Berman is a junior swimmer at Rutgers University who is serving as an intern at Swimming World this semester.

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