Novi senior tests limits of MS to play lacrosse

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

We tell our kids their whole lives to dream big. No one is going to convince Mina Cunmulaj she should stop now.

Cunmulaj is a senior at Novi High School. It's her year for prom, pictures, planning for college, fond farewells and lacrosse.

Especially lacrosse. Lacrosse above all else, whatever the cost in sweat and tears and dead-legged tumbles to the turf.

Even now that she has MS, or amid Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Week, particularly now that she has MS. She will be a spokeswoman, an example, and, when she has time, a young adult playing the position known as "attack" for the Novi High Wildcats.

The diagnosis came on Oct. 7, only five months ago. It was 4:17 a.m., in a room at Providence Park Hospital in Novi.

Her first question: "Can I play lacrosse?"

It was a reflex. It came before the tears and trepidation. And the second question, about whether she would be in a wheelchair the rest of her life:

"I don't know," the doctor said, answering both at once. But Cunmulaj does.

"I don't want to settle," she said. "I want to keep pushing myself, living the life I had before."

The pre-MS Cunmulaj loved to cook and bake pies, had multiple circles of friends and owned a chestnut horse named Happy.

So does the post-MS Cunmulaj, but at a point in her life where she should be preparing for freedom, she's finding her way around restrictions.

The trainers at the high school are figuring out strategies to let her stay on the field longer, inventing protocols as they go.

A strapping friend from the boys' soccer and lacrosse teams comes with her to the school's indoor track sometimes to catch her when she's done running, because when you can't feel your feet and legs you have no brakes.

The athletic director is planning a special boys' and girls' double-header to raise money for Multiple Sclerosis research.

Cunmulaj — it's pronounced COON-moo-lie — is working every weekend with a coach at a sports center in Wixom, refining skills she can only hope her body will let her use.

And the first game is less than three weeks away.

Maybe she's a long shot, but only 8,000 to 10,000 children and adolescents in the United States today have been diagnosed with MS.

That's a long shot, too.

A minor league hockey goalie named Josh Harding won games in the National Hockey League after being diagnosed with MS, and a small-college distance runner named Kayla Montgomery won a state high school title in North Carolina.

But "the research we've found is limited," said Novi High School trainer Chase Kreger, "because most athletes in Mina's position just quit."

She won't, which leaves Kreger and intern John Penley from Eastern Michigan University crafting a regimen they say they hope they'll be able to share with another athlete's support team down the road.

The key is core temperature. When Cunmulaj's rises, her symptoms appear. Every afternoon she spends four minutes in a 52-degree ice bath, stretches, runs until the numbness hits, and goes back in the bath.

Sometimes she'll also lift weights, but exhaustion is another symptom. "I can sleep 12 hours," she said, "and wake up tired." On a brisk afternoon last week, she opted for a nap at home instead.

It's a good day, though. With the revised treatment of icing twice, her times for the half mile have been dropping while the length of time it takes to lose feeling has been increasing.

MS typically strikes people between 20 and 50, with women about 2 1/2 times more likely than men to be afflicted.

The immune system attacks the protective sheath that covers nerves. Communication is disrupted between the brain and the body. There might be long periods of remission between symptoms, or there might be crippling infirmity.

Drugs have come to market in the last few decades that ideally slow the progress of the disease and lower the number of relapses. Cunmulaj may start on one in the summer; for now, her specialist has her doing yoga, taking iron and Vitamin D, avoiding gluten and eating organics.

"We are aware of one child in the Detroit area who was diagnosed at the age of 2," said Rose Jones Taylor of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society's Michigan chapter.

Researchers, Taylor said, believe that studying younger patients will "benefit in the general understanding of MS."

What Cunmulaj can tell them is that one day her left knee felt funny, the next she was numb all the way to her hip, and that none of this fit into her plans.

Cunmulaj is part of a close-knit family with strong ties to Albania and cousins who feel like siblings. One of them plays for the men's lacrosse team at the University of Detroit Mercy, where she has been accepted and where she still hopes to try out as well.

That's another long shot: Only 13 percent of high school lacrosse players compete in college, and Cunmulaj, who first picked up a stick as a freshman, will tell you she barely made Novi's varsity as a junior.

By the end of the year, though, she was selected as one of four captains for the upcoming season, with all its promise.

The other three gathered around the ice bath in the training room last week as Cunmulaj recuperated from her run.

The Wildcats have a new coach, two players with scholarship offers from Division I colleges, and high hopes.

Co-captain Alanna Clark said they have an "encouraging presence" in Cunmulaj, regardless of how much or how well she plays.

On the field, Clark said, Cunmulaj is "very aggressive. She loves to shoot." Off the field, "instead of wallowing in sadness, she took something that could have been so negative in her life and made it a positive."

The local MS Society chapter became aware of Cunmulaj because she wrote a letter to the national organization. What might she do, the letter asked, to raise money for the cause, or more important to let other teenage athletes know they didn't have to give up?

"She's not about, 'Hey, look at me,' " said Novi High athletic director Brian Gordon.

It was other students, in fact, who informed him of her diagnosis, and when he told Cunmulaj what he had in mind — the boys and girls playing on the same night, wearing orange jerseys for MS that they would later put up for bid — she cried.

He nearly did, too.

"Her approach to this curveball is not only amazing," Gordon said, "it's mature. Astonishing. Remarkable."

He said someone from the school will contact each of Novi's opponents to explain that if the attack with the long, dark hair keels over, it's not an emergency.

The trainers will work with her on a signal to let the coaches know her legs are starting to tingle, and she'll soon need a substitute.

Cunmulaj will just keep pushing. A month after the diagnosis, a band of Novi teammates and some friends played in an unofficial 7-on-7 tournament in Canton. Cunmulaj scored three times, she said, and then she thought, "Take that, MS."

It was a different kind of tingle altogether, the kind a player dreams about, and she'll feel it again. She's sure of it.