One short step at a time Gabby Weber slowly makes her way from the athletic training room inside the Belgrade Special Events Center, across the west lobby, and then returns. It’s a little less than 100 yards round trip, but it’s an arduous walk.
Just one month removed from surgery, the daily stroll is both painful and frustrating. Thus, Belgrade High School Athletic Trainer Matt Hoskins has preached patience.
“As an athlete, she wanted to go fast in the walk. So I had to stop her,” he said. “I looked and her and said, ‘It’s not about getting from point A to point B fast, we’re trying to get the range of motion back.’”
Weber hadn’t used the muscles in her lower leg for the better part of two months and was in danger of losing her right foot all while doctors were baffled as to the cause.
So, while it’s been tough to ease back into things, the 17-year-old is excited the rehabilitation process has begun.
“Who would have thought this would have come out of a calf cramp,” said Hoskins.
In mid-December, just five games in the basketball season, Weber fell to the floor while hustling back on defense late in the third quarter against conference rival Havre. The junior guard was clearly in discomfort.
“At first I kind of thought maybe I pulled my calf and then when I went to the ground and felt it some more it felt like a cramp. Just like a really bad charley horse,” Weber explained. “And then I tried to stretch a little bit and it just wasn’t budging, so that’s when Skins (Hoskins) came out on the court.”
Hoskins helped the All-State point guard off the court and then the duo disappeared into a hallway leading into the training room. A few minutes later Weber reemerged and was immediately inserted back into the contest by coach Sarah Fowler. But the cramping persisted, and after having to leave the game twice more, Hoskins pulled the plug.
Since there had been no prior problems, Hoskins treated it as a typical calf cramp. Weber filled up on electrolytes and rested over the next three days with a road game in Butte fast approaching.
But, the cramping arose again and Weber was forced to leave the contest in Butte in the second half. A light week of practice followed prior to a league game in Lewistown, but nothing improve.
Weber didn’t even make it through the first quarter.
“That one was probably the most aggressive cramp that had happened,” she said.
That was the final game before Christmas break, and then Weber sat out of practice over the next two weeks to rest the calf. But, in the team’s first game of the new year against Park County, the cramping struck again.
“When I cramped up that was probably the most emotional time when I went back into the training room with Skins,” said Weber. “Because we both knew this was probably going to be putting my season on hold until we figured out what was going to work and what was actually going on.”
Trying to figure out the cause proved to be difficult as Weber and her parents, Bruce and Crystal, were passed from one doctor to next. Meanwhile, Gabby’s conditioned worsened as her calf began to twitch while sitting and lying in bed. That led Hoskins to believe there was a neurological issue.
“I was thinking that maybe there’s a nerve in there that’s shorting out,” he said. “So I was picturing a short causing the muscle to spasm, to twitch, and when stressed — cramp.”
To make matters worse, Gabby’s right foot soon swelled to twice its size, turned purple, and she gradually lost feeling. Clearly the lower leg was not receiving the blood flow it needed, but after seeing half a dozen doctors, each informed the family that it did not appear to be vascular in nature.
“Hearing that and then having a cold purple foot, you’re just like, ‘Okay if it’s not vascular, then what’s causing it to be cold and purple,” said Gabby. “That was really frustrating for us because we knew it was something vascular and so did Skins.”
Bruce and Crystal followed the progression like everyone else, as if it was simply a calf strain or possibly a torn calf. But Gabby insisted it was something more, and when the swelling began in her foot their worst fears became reality.
“It really hit us, the concern, when the swelling happened. All of a sudden the swelling and then the coldness of her foot,” said Bruce. “That’s when we we’re like, ‘Oh my gosh this is serious.’ This has to be more than just a typical injury. It just kept getting worse and we started to get pretty panicked.”
What they didn’t realize at that time was just how much more frustrating and agonizing it was about to become.
After getting nowhere with countless doctor’s appointments, and being told that Montana doesn’t deal with the “strange and unusual”, the Weber’s were referred to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
“The vascular doctor here in Bozeman said that because of her age and the symptoms and the test results that he was reading — he could not see her veins past her knee — he was really concerned for her,” said Crystal. “He thought that she might have something more severe than what Montana could handle. So he felt that her care and health was more important than to try anywhere else in Bozeman.”
Believing that answers lie outside of the state, the family flew to Minnesota.
Finally, an answer.
It took just one test — the same test that had twice been performed in Montana — for the surgeon at the Mayo Clinic to determine the ailment. Gabby was suffering from popliteal artery entrapment. It’s a rare vascular disease in which the muscle and tendons near the knee are positioned in a way that they compress the popliteal artery, something Gabby was born with.
The surgeon recommended surgery almost immediately, but the family ran into a major road block. Their insurance company, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, denied coverage. In order for the surgery to take place, a payment of more than $52,000 was required up front.
“It was just at the point where we we’re just so frustrated sitting at Mayo in the vascular department just looking at each other like what are we going to do,” said Bruce.
Although emotionally spent, Bruce and Crystal were relentless, and following countless phone calls and discussions they were referred to a doctor back in Montana where insurance would provide coverage.
Needless to say, everyone was apprehensive after being told Montana was ill-equipped to handle such a complicated procedure. But they flew to Billings and successful surgery took place on Feb. 23. Gabby noted she was put at ease by her surgeon after being wheeled into the operating room.
“It was a really cool situation when I got in there. The surgeon actually asked to pray with me and I thought that was really amazing,” she said. “And right before they gave me the IV to get knocked out, they did a really nice prayer for them to be able to figure out what was going on and to fix the problem. It was really cool, and I think right at that moment is when I got pretty calm and like, ‘I trust these guys and I know they’re going to do what’s best.’”
Despite only playing in eight games this past season, Gabby earned second team all-conference honors in the Central A and was a co-selection for the team’s most inspirational player.
While it’s too soon to know if there is permanent nerve damage, Gabby is hopeful for a full recovery and plans return to basketball this summer.
“I have movement in my toes, but there’s days that it doesn’t want to move and there’s days that it’s pretty painful,” she said. “At night there’s times that you get the tingling and numbness and sometimes it’s kind of like shooting pains, so that’s the only bummer about the whole thing is just the nerve.”
In addition to those after school walks, Hoskins has been focused on reestablishing Gabby’s range of motion. Treatment has involved joint mobilization and ankle pumps to stretch the calf and gain elasticity back in the calf.
Gabby had her stitches removed Monday in Billings and physical therapy began in earnest Tuesday. She plans to be walking without aid within the next two weeks.
“To see her walking and off the crutches,” said Bruce, “it’s a blessing for sure.”
Family grateful for community support
Throughout Gabby’s three month ordeal, the family received overwhelming support from both the Belgrade community and around the state.
A family friend helped set up air travel when the Weber’s traveled out of state for treatment and a GoFundMe page was established to defray costs.
“The GoFundMe page was just huge. We had friends I hadn’t talked to in years that I graduated with and went to school with that were sending donations and just prayers and thoughts. You could leave messages on there and I was blown away,” Bruce said. “We were so humbled by it.”
The GoFundMe page raised more than $8,300.
“We’ve always just had such good support and friends here, but I had no idea how quickly people would react. And how supportive people we barely know — people that we know, but more like in passing at the games because you know who they are — those people were the ones who were just on it,” Bruce said. “We were just blown away. We couldn’t ask for a better community. I just couldn’t believe it. Every time I talk about it I just still can’t believe it.”
While Belgrade High and her basketball teammates were also very supportive, Gabby noted that the Havre High girls basketball team reached out to her as things got worse, and then visited the hospital following surgery.
“They were the first ones there to see me in the hospital and I thought that was really neat,” she said. “They all just supported me through the whole thing and every single one of those girls is just so classy and just so amazing.”