Rare condition doesn’t slow down Fayetteville 2-sport standout Kat Holley

Fayetteville High School senior Kat Holley always keeps a bag of snacks nearby, especially in the dugout during softball games or on the sideline during basketball games.

However, don’t expect Holly to pull out her favorite bar of chocolate or her favorite combination.

“It’s stuff no one wants,” she said. “Who wants to eat only pickles and soy sauce? It’s disgusting and I hate it, but it helps me.”

Holly is battling a form of dysphoria, a largely unknown nervous system disorder that disrupts the body’s involuntary processes. In Holly’s case, she suffers from a form of dysphoria called vasovagal syncope, which causes a rapid and unexpected drop in blood pressure. The rapid change in blood pressure reduces blood flow to the brain, causing Kat to briefly lose consciousness.

But the condition didn’t slow her down. Holly learned this spring that she was Fayetteville’s valedictorian, having scored a 30 on the ACT. She joined the basketball and softball teams as a seventh-grader, earning all-district honors in both sports, and spent a season on the volleyball team. She has been very active in community service projects through various campus organizations.

Holly is also one of 52 regional winners in the Bryant-Jordan Scholar-Athlete Program category – selected in Class 2A, Region 4. A total of 102 high school student-athletes – 52 in the Bryant-Jordan Scholar-Athlete Program and 52 in the Bryant-Jordan Student Achievement – Apply from District Nominations. They will all be honored at the 37th Annual Bryant-Jordan Awards Gala held tonight at the Sheraton Birmingham Hotel.

Each regional recipient will receive a $3,000 scholarship. From the regional recipients, the Bryant-Jordan Selection Committee selects the chapter winners and overall recipients of the Larry D. Striplin, Jr. Award. The Scholar-Athlete State Award and the Ken & Betty Joy Blankenship Achievement State Award. Chapter award winners will each receive an additional $3,500 scholarship, and the two individuals named state award recipients will each receive an additional $4,000 scholarship as overall state winners. More than $12 million in scholarship funds have been distributed to student recipients through the Bryant-Jordan Scholarship Program since its inception in 1988.

“Most days, you would never know she had an illness,” Fayetteville City Manager Lynn Ritchie said. “You never know there’s going to be hardship. She’s very calm and respectful of that. Sometimes, medically, she has to take time off or have a doctor’s appointment, but she perseveres like no one else I know. She goes out of her way to get into that game, or that activity, or take that test, or whatever is on her schedule. That’s what I think is great about Kat. She works hard and she perseveres.”

Fayetteville High School student Kat Holley is the Bryant-Jordan Class 2A Achievement Winner for District 4. (Contribute)

Dealing with dysphonia

Kat remembers having her first mysterious fainting episode in the parking lot of a local drugstore a few weeks before starting seventh grade. At first, she worried that the condition would force her to give up the sport altogether. Since then, she has developed strategies to cope with her condition and avoid what she calls “flashes.” Since most people have never heard of autonomic dyskinesia, Holly and her family had to educate teachers and coaches about her condition and how to manage it. That’s why she always carries a snack bag and water bottle with her.

Prescription medications help, but doctors also mandate that Kat consume large amounts of sodium and water daily. Sodium helps the body retain fluids, and high fluid levels increase blood volume, which in turn increases blood pressure.

When you feel an attack of illness approaching, you learn to quickly consume something salty and drink water. This led to drinking soy sauce and pickle juice as a quick tonic. She eats a lot of deli meats, as they often contain high levels of sodium, and now takes 1,000 milligram salt tablets to supplement her diet. Her favorite snack chip is Cool Ranch Doritos. “It’s really salty,” she said.

Each patient with vasovagal syncope responds to specific triggers. In Kat’s case, her triggers include stress, anxiety, heat and physical exertion, all of which athletes face in almost every practice and match. The stress surrounding Kat’s senior year of high school, including choosing a college destination, amplified her triggers and made them more difficult to control.

Beyond the physical symptoms, she said she faced psychological battles because of her condition. Like most athletes, she didn’t want special treatment from coaches, even when she learned over time that there were some activities she couldn’t do.

For example, I’ve found that burpees and squats can cause dizziness. This means that these exercises must be reduced or cancelled. “I haven’t done burpees in years,” she said.

There is no way to know when you will feel a spell coming on, which is a byproduct of a condition that causes unexpected drops in blood pressure.

“I don’t want people to think I’m trying to get out of something or that I’m making an excuse,” she said. “This is honestly probably the biggest challenge for me.”

Additionally, dysphoria is rare, which caused further mental stress as the coaches were concerned about her health until she learned how best to explain her symptoms and convince them that she could be trusted to ask for a break when necessary.

“I think people are afraid of her because people don’t understand her,” said Holly, Cat’s mother and Fayetteville teacher, a former softball coach. “When you talk about a coach trying to make sure a child is safe and it’s something you don’t understand, it’s like, ‘Do I trust them?’ Do I not trust them? It’s been a really great way for her to learn how to be an advocate for herself in a lot of different ways, and that applies to All aspects of life.

“She does a really good job of talking to adults. She does a better job of talking to adults than I do most of the time, and I think a lot of that came from her having to advocate for herself and explain things,” Lee added.

Kat has spent the past six years discovering the best way to manage her condition – often through trial and error – forcing her to mature and develop self-awareness. This spring, she missed a softball game after passing out while working at a local hospital. She said playing in the game would hurt the team more than playing.

“She’s gotten really good at picking up signs that something is wrong,” Holley told me.

What then?

Kat is scheduled to attend the University of Alabama, with plans to pursue a degree in nursing and eventually a graduate degree to become a physician assistant. She has already earned more than 20 college credits through dual enrollment and said her job shadowing at a local hospital this spring helped inspire her to pursue a career in medicine.

“I love helping people and seeing them live fuller lives,” she said. “I think it makes me happy because of my condition.”

Those who know Kat best see a bright future ahead of her.

“She doesn’t have a bone in her body that would allow her to do something halfway. She doesn’t know how,” her mother said. “She’s the worst liar in the world. She can’t lie to you, and she can’t allow herself to get over things. I think you can tie all of these things together, and I think it will ultimately work out in whatever you do in the end.

Principal Ritchie added: “I think she is an amazing young woman and will go to college and do great things. Most importantly, she will help the world we all live in and make it a better place.”

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