Two months before his first game as women's basketball coach at Mount St. Joseph University, Dan Benjamin received an unusual request from the parents of one of his players.
Lisa and Brent Hill asked Benjamin to try to move up the date of the team's Nov. 15 season opener because they feared their daughter might not be alive by then.
Freshman forward Lauren Hill learned last fall that she'd likely be dead in less than two years after the discovery of an inoperable tumor at the base of her brain stem. An MRI last month revealed the tumor had grown so large that doctors doubted Hill would make it through December, casting doubt on the 19-year-old's chances of either living long enough or being healthy enough to fulfill her dream of playing college basketball next month.
"I've been coaching in the Cincinnati area for 25 years and part of the reason you coach is to make an impact on people's lives," Benjamin said. "In this case, a small change could make a big difference, so it was definitely an easy decision to try to help her make her dream come true."
Though Division III basketball teams aren't permitted to play games that count in the standings until mid-November, Benjamin secured an exemption from the NCAA to start his team's season sooner. He then persuaded season-opening opponent Hiram College to agree to play on Nov. 2 and to shift the site of the game to Mount St. Joseph.
To Lisa Hill, the date change is an improvement but not enough to assuage concerns. Lauren's symptoms have worsened recently and her health may deteriorate further in the next few weeks. Some days her hand-eye coordination suffers. Others she battles vertigo. Lately, the Greendale, Ind., native endures headaches and nausea every day and the right side of her body is so weak that her leg often gives out on her when she walks.
"I wish I could move the game up to this Sunday, I'll tell you that," Lisa Hill said. "[Lauren] could probably get away with it then, but in two weeks there is no guarantee what condition she's going to be in. I do know she will fight tooth and nail to keep herself together and get to that game because she wants to put on that jersey, be on that floor and fulfill her dream of playing on the college level."
Family and friends believe the younger Hill will summon the strength to play a few minutes on Nov. 2 because they've seen her defy the odds many times before.
This is a girl who played the majority of her senior season in high school while undergoing radiation and chemotherapy; who taught herself to shoot left-handed because her right arm sometimes lacks the strength to get the ball to the rim; who participated in almost every Mount St. Joseph open gym session this fall even though fatigue forces her to rest every couple minutes.
Basketball is worth such a monumental effort from Hill because it provides a respite from her troubles and a brief return to normalcy. Just like Hill chose to graduate high school, enroll at Mount St. Joseph and live in a freshman dorm in spite of her diagnosis, she also refuses to give up a sport she has loved since the sixth grade.
"It definitely gives me something to look forward to and to live for," Hill said. "Playing basketball really helps me get my mind off things. The girls feed me energy. If I'm feeling down, they pick me up and help me keep going. They're kind of my fuel."
If Hill gleans energy from her teammates and coaches, they often draw inspiration from her strength. Those close to Hill marvel at how she has resolved to make the most of the few months she has left to live despite a diagnosis that waylaid her and her family.
Neither Hill nor her parents had any inkling something was wrong last October when she struggled to keep pace with some of her Lawrenceburg High School teammates during conditioning. Hill simply assumed she was out of shape after not playing soccer in the fall the way she had the previous three years.
Sporadic balance and hand-eye coordination issues, bouts of dizziness and occasional blurry vision and hearing loss probably should have tipped Hill off that something was wrong, but again she found a convenient explanation. A previous collision with a teammate had left her with a black eye, so she and her parents figured that perhaps she had sustained a concussion and still had some lingering symptoms.
When Hill's parents took her to the hospital last November for some precautionary tests, the results of an MRI and CT scan proved to be far from routine. Doctors diagnosed Hill with Diffused Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), a rare, inoperable pediatric brain tumor that primarily affects children ages 5-10 and kills 90 percent of victims within 18 months.
"We were totally blindsided," Lisa Hill said. "I would have never in my wildest dreams thought it was a brain tumor of any sort, let alone the worst one that it could be. Brent felt like he was going to pass out and I felt like I was going to throw up, I got lightheaded and I burst out crying. It was just an overwhelming amount of emotion when you're not expecting that diagnosis at all."
The calmest family member in the room was Lauren. Once she inquired about potential treatment options, the younger Hill's next question was whether she'd be able to play basketball again.
Basketball had evolved into one of Hill's passions over the course of her high school career even though Lawrenceburg was far from a powerhouse. By the start of Hill's junior season, she had resolved to play in college. By the start of her senior season, she had committed to play for nearby Mount St. Joseph.
Hill decided to tell her high school teammates about her brain tumor only days after she learned about it herself. Lawrenceburg coach Zane White addressed players after a film session, telling them only that one of their teammates needed their thoughts and prayers.
"She stood up in front of 10 other girls and told her story," White said. "By the time she was done there wasn't a dry eye in the room. None of us could really grasp the severity of what she had at the time or what was inevitable, but even just hearing the words 'brain tumor' and 'cancer' was enough to scare the you know what out of all of us."
Though six weeks of radiation and two months of chemotherapy sapped Hill's strength, she still only missed a handful of games her senior season. She started every game she played and endured as many minutes as she could before exhaustion overtook her, emerging as the emotional leader for her team even if she could no longer carry Lawrenceburg with her play on the floor.
In addition to focusing on school and basketball the past 11 months, Hill has also found purpose in striving to raise money and awareness for DIPG and other forms of pediatric cancer. She has partnered on fundraisers with The Cure Starts Now Cancer Research Foundation. She has encouraged her friends to learn about DIPG or spread the word by doing class assignments on it. And she has raised awareness herself by doing interviews with Cincinnati-area TV stations about her fight with the disease.
"There are kids younger than I am with DIPG that I feel so sorry for," Hill said. "I've lived 19 years. These kids, they're living five."
Hill's quest to shine a spotlight on DIPG is a huge reason why it's so important to her to play in the Mount St. Joseph season opener on Nov. 2. In addition to the personal satisfaction of achieving a longtime goal, Hill sees the media attention she'll no doubt garner as a big plus for her cause.
There are times when doubts creep into Hill's mind over whether she'll live long enough to play in that game. There are times when the challenges of each day make it too hard to think that far ahead. Nonetheless, Hill is resolute in her desire to stride onto the floor when the starting lineups are introduced, to stand with her teammates when the national anthem plays and to participate in as many possessions as possible before fatigue sends her to the bench.
"The two things that have driven her are her dreams to play at the college level and to spread awareness about this ugly disease," Lisa Hill said. "If she accomplishes both, she goes out the way she wants to go out. That in itself is priceless."
Video from WLWT of Hill's quest to raise awareness for pediatric cancer:
- - - - - - -