11/12/04 — Wilkerson plays -- and lives -- through pain

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Wilkerson plays -- and lives -- through pain

By David Williams
Published in Sports on November 12, 2004 1:57 PM

PIKEVILLE-- Meredith Wilkerson plays softball with all the passion she can muster. Whether playing for Charles B. Aycock High School's successful program in the spring or for a traveling team in the off-season, Wilkerson loves the game and plays it with ease.

She also plays in pain -- all the time.

Wilkerson, entering her senior year at Charles B. Aycock, looks and acts like any other teenager. But she has a disease that most people associate with the elderly -- ankylosing spondylitis, a rare form of arthritis that has been attacking her for the last three years. It is especially rare in girls -- which makes Meredith's situation even more unusual and remarkable.

She is not the only one in the family with this disease.

Meredith's older sister, Tabitha, was stricken so badly she used to drag herself down the hallway to come to dinner or the bathroom. The pain is paralyzing, and Tabitha has learned to live with it.

She is married and has an 11-month old child. While pregnant, the disease went into a form of remission, but it is starting to show up again. Yet with the rigors of young motherhood and the challenge of a debilitating disease, Tabitha continues to go on with her life.

After watching her sister struggle, Meredith knew what might come when she discovered she had the condition, as well. It was first diagnosed in the ninth grade, when Meredith felt pain in her legs and struggled to get out of bed.

"She was having trouble with her legs," said her mother, Melinda, who along with her husband Donnie has taken Meredith to specialists -- most of the same doctors that diagnose and treat Tabitha.

"We had MRIs and CAT scans done, and had blood clot work done before they ran the arthritis test and found it."

While her discomfort is not as severe as her sister's condition, Meredith is chronically in pain -- through her back, in her fingers, in her legs. When it is cold -- as it usually is at the start of prep softball season -- it gets worse.

"She does have a marvelous attitude," said Melinda. "We thought seeing what her sister went through might make her give up, but she hasn't."

Despite discomfort that would have converted a lot of people into shut-ins, Meredith goes on about her game, stooping, bending and pushing a body that is constantly nagging at her to stop.

"In practice or in a game, you'd never know anything was wrong," said Aycock softball coach David West. "Unless you knew it, you wouldn't know it. She goes at it as hard as she can. If we are running in practice and Meredith is pulling up, then we know she is just straighenting herself out and she'll be fine in a minute. She usually stays after practice to catch up on running she missed."

Meredith battles the pain with medication, hot showers and a lot of support from her parents, coaches and teammates. But she asks no quarter and gives none on a softball field.

"She has a lot of pain after activities," said Melinda. "She stretches to get going in the mornings and after playing ball. After games is when she gets the most pain."

Meredith said she has the same type of school life her friends do. "I have some trouble in weightlifting," she said. "Not in lifting -- the coach didn't believe me when I told him I had this."

"Most of the time she tries to go on with life as normally as possible," said Melinda.

The prognosis for Meredith, like that of most arthritis suffers, is that the condition slowly and progressively will get worse. But she does not consider herself particularly inspiring.

"I just want to play softball as long as I can," she said. "I'll do what it takes to keep playing."

Meredith hopes to play in college -- and expects to do just that.