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Tom Mix, Published January 07 2013

Two former Lisbon athletes dealing with life-altering health issues

LISBON, N.D. - Just as quick as a fast break off a turnover, the lives of former Lisbon girls basketball players Morgan VanWell and Alyssa Lee have been forever changed.

This past year, both VanWell and Lee have been diagnosed with life-altering health issues.

VanWell, 20, is a 2010 graduate of Lisbon High School and is currently a junior at Minnesota State Moorhead. She is experiencing the early stages of Stargardt syndrome – a disease which causes progressive vision loss to the point of legal blindness.

Lee, 17, is a junior at Lisbon H.S., and was diagnosed last spring with Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy. It is a condition caused by a muscle in the heart being abnormally thickened and is the leading cause for sudden cardiac deaths in young athletes.

Lee can no longer compete in sports and VanWell is steadily coming to grips that her life is changing, but one thing that has not changed is the support each has received from their family, friends and the town of Lisbon.

“You get pretty close to the kids you coach,” Lisbon head girls basketball coach Barb Sweet said. “I know these kids and anytime you hear something threatening or life-changing is happening in their lives it really tugs at you.”

The difficulties Lee and VanWell have had to endure the last year inspired Sweet to host an informal fundraising event during a Broncos home basketball doubleheader

Free-will donations to help VanWell and Lee will be collected during Lisbon’s boys and girls basketball games against Central Cass today. The girls game begins at 6:15 p.m. followed by the boys at 7:45 p.m.

Coaches in each game will go barefoot, symbolic of what it’s like to experience another person’s struggles.

“I heard of these barefoot games that the colleges do, but they do them to send shoes to lesser developed countries,” Sweet said. “That is not really what our event is for, but it is the same kind of idea. This is a chance to take off our shoes in see what is like walking in their shoes.”

VanWell and Lee said they are looking forward to the event. Both have also had separate benefit events hosted in Lisbon recently.

“Barb (Sweet) had told me that they were planning on doing this event at my benefit,” said VanWell, who played four years on the Lisbon varsity. “Just hearing that feels really good to know that you have your team’s support and even though I’m not on the team anymore everyone still has my back.”

VanWell’s sight will never go completely black, but her central vision in both eyes will eventually be gone leaving her with only peripheral vision.

“It’s been a big change,” said VanWell who first noticed her vision loss her freshman year at MSUM. “I can still do most of my activities, but I try not to drive at night just because it is harder for me. My depth perception is a little off.”

VanWell said she has revised her future plans, but the steady decline of her vision allows her to plan and adjust. She wanted to be an audiologist, but now is studying social work.

Lee, who was Lisbon’s starting point guard last year, remains involved with the Broncos. Though she isn’t distributing the ball on the court any longer, Lee is now dishing out advice to her teammates on the bench.

“I feel honored that they are doing that,” Lee said of the fundraiser. “I was shocked that they cared that much and the community will be coming together for it.”

Lee was born with a heart condition and always struggled with endurance while participating in athletics. At first, doctors believed Lee had a minor breathing problem and prescribed her to try certain breathing exercises.

“I was working way harder to get back in shape, but it never felt right,” Lee said.

Nothing seemed to work. Lee couldn’t remain on the court for more than two-minute stretches.

Lee said getting her diagnosis in a Minneapolis hospital waiting room was the toughest day of her life. It remains unclear what Lee’s limitations are when it comes to physical activity.

“The more I think about it, I’m lucky to be here,” Lee said.

Sweet recalls a game last season in which she called on Lee to go hard in the final three minutes. Sweet said knowing that Lee’s condition was misdiagnosed has made her more cautious as a coach.

“I think what could have happened often,” Sweet said. “We were so close to having a tragedy happen.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Tom Mix at (701) 241-5562