you are a high school athlete, a runner — a champion runner, at that.
Now imagine that one day your heart beats much faster than normal when you just simply stand up. You get dizzy, your legs go numb when you walk and you feel tired all the time. You can’t sleep well and you get really bad headaches.
That’s what Lauren West has been dealing with since last August, shortly before her junior year at Hunt High began. For Lauren, who emerged as a dominant cross-country and track performer for the Lady Warriors since her freshman year, dealing with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome — or POTS — hasn’t been easy.
For one thing, when walking or just sitting upright becomes a chore, running a mile becomes an ordeal. She’s had to scale back her participation for the Lady Warriors track team this spring and will not compete in Saturday’s North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A East Regional meet at Corinth Holders High. It will be the first regional — track or cross-country — that she’s missed and it means that she won’t be able to compete in the state 3-A meet in Greensboro on May 9.
“I’m disappointed I’m not going but there will be other regionals and other meets,” she said during an interview inside the West family living room Monday. “One of my goals was to hit every single state meet so that’s kind of hard.”
While she said that with a certain wistfulness, West immediately punctuated the statement with a smile that flickers across her face several times a minute. For West, it seems that smiling comes as naturally as breathing.
“It’s just a part of her,” said her father, Sandy.
It could be e
asy for Lauren West to get depressed over her situation but that’s not even an option for the cheerful 17-year-old.
“Lauren is a lot like her father — she is very competitive — and she doesn’t like anything or anyone to beat her, including POTS,” said her mother, Tonya. “I’ve been amazed. She’s dealt with it with such grace and such a positive attitude. I’ve struggled with it probably more than she has!”
‘PERFECT STORM’ OF SYMPTOMS
She first displayed symptoms of POTS when she fainted while working at St. Timothy’s Soup Kitchen last August. Initially, that was no cause for concern but within a week or two, West began to feel light-headed and her heart would start beating excessively fast when she was upright.
“When she goes from a seated position to standing up, her pulse jumps from 25 to 30 beats,” Tonya West said. “Her heartbeat goes into overdrive trying to pump that blood back to her heart.”
Those symptoms suddenly created a disturbance in the teenager’s active life.
“When this all hit, it was like the perfect storm,” Tonya West said. “Everything just erupted, all the symptoms and allergies just went into full-blown mode.”
After her daughter was diagnosed with dysautonomia, which is just generic term for a neurological dysfunction, Tonya West started scouring the Internet, looking for a connection to known conditions. When she came across POTS, it matched up to Lauren’s symptoms.
There is no particular cause, although it can be acquired through a virus, which Tonya and Sandy West suspect is the culprit. Lauren West fits the profile for those with POTS — young, Caucasian female
who is a high achiever and has a good deal of flexibility.
Now it’s just a matter of managing her symptoms. Lauren West estimates she takes up to 16 different medications and she drinks a lot of water and has increased her salt intake, happily noting that means more french fries!
The good news is that POTS, while it can be very debilitating in some cases, hasn’t completely sidelined Lauren. She has played soccer all season and competed in outdoor track in a limited capacity. The condition usually goes away within a few years or less and that’s what West and her parents are hoping for.
“We were thankful it wasn’t a permanent disease and that this is something temporary, hopefully, that she can live with,” Tonya West said. “She functions very normally on a daily basis. It’s something that just impacts her sports competition.”
MAKING HER MARK
Lauren West burst onto the scene in the fall of 2012 as a freshman when, competing in cross-country for the first time, she won the Wilson County Cross-Championships and finished second in the 3-A Big East Conference championships as well as the 3-A East Regional meet.
A lithe, graceful runner, she parlayed that success from cross-country onto the track, finishing fifth in the 500-meter run at the state 1-A/2-A/3-A indoor track championships before moving to the outdoor season, where she was just successful in the 800 and 1,600.
West’s best cross-country time was 19 minutes, 16 seconds, which she did at the regional meet as a freshman. She has posted personal-record times of 1:19 in the 500 and 5:20 in the 1,600 — all of which put her in the top 10 in the state.
She has won the Wilson County title all three years and ruled the Big East in cross-country the last two seasons, includi
ng last fall when POTs limited her ability to compete. She won both the 800 and 1,600 in the Big East outdoor championships last spring and figured to be one of the top 3-A runners in the state over her last two years.
But, even after finishing fifth in the 500 at the state 3-A indoor championships in February, West knew she was probably not going to be able to compete as a runner this spring.
“I have a hard time staying in my lane,” she said, pointing that after about 200 meters, she goes numb from her legs down. “I kind of wander in and out and I can get stuck in one speed. It’s like slow motion and it’s hard to run at the speed I used to.”
Those effects would make running any distance extremely hard. But West has continued to play soccer as she had her first two years at Hunt.
“I figured out soccer would go better and be less painful so I decided to do that,” she said.
But she has to take breaks and wears compression leggings to help force the blood back to her heart.
She even took up a new event this spring when running became more difficult. West said Hunt track coach Rusty Boyette asked her to try long jump before a meet. Before she knew it, he had entered her in the event. West has jumped 15 feet, 3 inches in a meet and gone 16-4 in practice and tried the triple jump as well. Ironically, she pulled a quadricep muscle jumping during The Wilson Times Track Classic in mid-April, thus ending her track season.
While soccer and volleyball were her favorite sports before she discovered she had a natural talent for distance running, West admits a little disappointment that she may never have a chance to return to or surpass the levels she was at her first two years.
“At this point, I would definitely like to be at the point I was my fres
hman year and my sophomore year but there’s nothing I can do about it,” she said. “So I’ve kind of just found other things and I’ve been really busy with school this year.”
In addition to taking a full International Baccalaureate course load, Lauren is the Junior Class president at Hunt as well as belongs to National Honor Society, Club UNIFY, Headbands for Hope and National Technical Honor Society.
She revealed that she wasn’t going to be able to compete in the regional meet this year anyway because she has to attend an orientation program for Girls State, which she has been selected for this summer.
She continues to help out at the Soup Kitchen and is coaching an ages 7-8 boys soccer team for Wilson Parks and Recreation Department.
She has downplayed her illness with her friends, unless they ask about it. She also hasn’t given up the idea that she will be running again — well ahead of the pack with her long strides just making it so much easier than it is.
“I still plan on continuing to run. I just don’t know how competitive it will be or at what distances,” she said, just before smiling again as a way to reassure everyone that POTS isn’t going to win this race.
“The athletics didn’t work out the way it could, but that’s not how she’s going to make a living,” said her father. “She’s made her mark and the way she’s dealt with it when she was having success and the way she’s dealt with it now, I couldn’t have asked her to do any better.”