Rare blood disease doesn't keep Cary-Grove grad Smith down
During her senior year in high school at Cary-Grove, Colleen Smith noticed she was having pain in her knees.
"I never had any issues before with my knees, but they were super-swollen," she said.
And then at a club tournament with her Sky High team in June of that year, things worsened. "I was extremely sick. I thought I had the flu, but my knees still were swollen and my eyes were real red," she recalled.
The initial diagnosis was tendinitis. Smith then headed to the University of Indiana later in the summer to begin preparations for her freshman season on the volleyball court at the Big Ten Conference school. Her conditioned worsened.
"During a summer workout I wasn't feeling well at all. My knees were the same and I started to get bloody noses," Smith said.
She struggled so badly in the team's running tests that she had to come in the mornings for additional work.
"It was pretty brutal. I knew something was off," she said. "I started to get more bloody noses and started coughing up blood."
One trip to the hospital resulted in a two-bag blood transfusion and a referral to a rheumatologist.
Finally, on Sept. 22 of her freshman year in 2011, Smith was diagnosed with Wegener's Granulomatosis, a disease that inflames the blood vessels and affects organs such as the kidneys and lungs. Affecting only 10 in one million people a year, the disease, if not treated, can be fatal.
"It was tough. I wanted to push myself to make a big impact in a tough conference. I wanted to prove to myself, my teammates and coaches that I was the same recruit that was recruited out of high school," Smith said.
At that point, it simply wasn't possible. Because of her illness and treatment, which included a non-cancer chemotherapy regimen, Smith signed a medical non-counter scholarship at Indiana that would allow her to continue her education and remain in a non-playing capacity with the program. She became a student assistant her sophomore year.
Smith then went into remission on June 4, 2012. But the urge to play volleyball still was very much alive.
"I was healthy and back to normal and did some summer camps at Cary-Grove and I really wanted to play," she said.
Indiana ended up releasing her from her scholarship and that allowed the process to start to find a new college volleyball home.
"I talked to a lot of schools but a lot of them were hesitant with my condition because it's so rare and they didn't want to take a risk," Smith said.
Smith, whose father, Robert "Bubba" Smith coached with cousin Bill Mitz (current Jacobs football coach) for more than three decades at Stevenson, estimated she talked with 20 schools and ended up settling in at DePaul her junior year.
The sixth-year 5-foot-11 senior setter averaged 9.84 assists and 2.33 digs per set this season and tied for the lead in aces on a Blue Demons team that went 13-17 overall and won 7 matches in the Big East Conference. With her sixth year of eligibility granted by the NCAA, Smith played four seasons at DePaul. She ranks in the Top 4 all-time in program history in assists.
"I'm totally thankful for what happened at DePaul," she said. "It's worked out awesome. I ended up with a sixth year and was one of the oldest people to play college volleyball this past year. My family and friends have been able to come to games and not too many people can say they got to play in front of 10 to 15 family members each game. I did that. I had the right coaches at DePaul who pushed me into becoming a really good player. I proved to myself I should be on the court."
Smith, whose older sister Danielle is a volleyball coach at Cary-Grove, also considers herself extremely fortunate given the seriousness of the blood disease.
"It was really hard to understand at first," she said. "I didn't know the seriousness of it until I looked it up. If you don't get it treated, you don't have too much time to live. When the doctors told me I couldn't play for nine months to a year, it was a shock to me. It was the hardest thing to grasp not being able to play or not being able to be around my friends and teammates at Indiana."
Smith applauded the tremendous support she received both from Indiana and DePaul. "Indiana was amazing. They helped get me through a tough freshman year," she said. "I couldn't be any more grateful for the support I've received and to the people who have pushed me through hard times. The people at DePaul stuck with me and never gave up on me and pushed me into the player I wanted to become. Everything happens for a reason even though it doesn't seem like it at the time. I kept pushing myself."
Smith, who still receives chemotherapy treatments every six months, recently graduated from DePaul with degrees in communications in media and PR/advertising. However, volleyball remains squarely on her radar.
"I can see myself coaching or playing overseas in Europe," she said. "I still have a huge love and passion for the game. I'm not ready to give it up yet."
Mike Miazga has covered sports in the Fox Valley for more than two decades. Email him at email@example.com.