Yale University Is Starting To
Sept. 3, 2010
The Yale University women’s field hockey team wants everyone to “Get a Grip” as the Bulldogs open their
season against Sacred Heart on Sept. 3.
The slogan holds a special significance for the squad as they support goalkeeper Ona McDonnell battle a
rare disease known as Myotonic Dystrophy, a form of muscular dystrophy that is characterized by muscle
weakness and atrophy, and stiffness and difficulty relaxing a muscle or myotonia.
McDonnell discovered she had the inherited disorder earlier this year after experiencing some tingling in
her hands, and being unable to release her fingers after grasping something. She saw a neurologist, who
diagnosed her with the rare disease that usually affects children and adults over 40 and is said to be “one
of the most variable diseases found in medicine.”
“The test is if you put two fingers out and grab onto them, you can’t let go,” said Yale head coach Pam
Stuper. “You almost have to pry your fingers off of whatever you’re holding. That’s how the disease
started, and was probably the biggest symptom that she had.
“Now, it has progressed and there’s pain from her shoulders down and it typically then starts to affect
your feet, and it is starting to affect hers. It could affect internal organs or give her cataracts … there’s
really no set way the disease progresses. Everybody’s symptoms are different, so it’s hard to determine
how things will progress. There is a lot of unknown for her.”
The sophomore, who grew up in London, England, to two U.S. citizens is still active as a team member
despite the affects of the disease, but there are some limits such as strength training and running for
extended periods of time.
“Because she plays in goal and does not have to grasp and manipulate a stick, but has on gloves with
her stick in them, I think it has allowed her to continue to play, but it is painful because her hands want to
close, yet the glove is holding them open,” said Stuper. “She has some good days, and some bad days,
but the team is really looking out for her.”
The doctors have allowed her to continue playing because they are not sure how participating in sports
affects the disease.
“They don’t know if it’s bad or good, so they said just continue as if nothing has happened,” said
McConnell. “It has definitely affected my ability to react on the field, and I’m a bit slower balance-
wise. The drugs I’m taking also make me feel nauseous if I run over a certain amount, so luckily I’m in
goal. I’ve noticed that I’m not as good as I was two years ago. But, I’ve realized that I love the sport so
much that I don’t mind just playing in practice. Even if I don’t get a minute of time on the field because I
understand I’m getting slower, I want to practice and play as long as I can.”
The disease has also affected her ability to write, and she is now assigned a note taker in classes, and
even finds typing on the computer is difficult after a few minutes. Academically, that has not stopped
Stuper, who is interested in a pursuing a career in medicine, and spent the summer at Normal University
in Beijing as a paid assistant in the functional magnetic resonance imaging/brain studies lab under Prof.
Despite the daily struggles of going about her normal life, McConnell, her coaches and teammates are
focused on finding a cure.
“My first reaction was, ‘Okay, I have this, so what do we do about it?’” said McConnell. “Honestly, it’s
bad news and I was worried, but I wanted to do something about it. I told my team what could possibly
happen with this disease and they all said they were here for me and we could do something to stop this.”
The Yale field hockey team organized a season-long campaign to raise awareness and funds for the
Myotonic Dystrophy Foundation. The team taking donations for MDF at the Sacred Heart game on Sept.
3, and all who donate will receive a Myotonic Dystrophy wristband. "Get a Grip" T-shirts and car magnets
will also be on sale as part of the fundraiser, and the Bulldogs will wear specially designed jerseys during
the game. The team will also be accepting pledges for a "Goal-a-thon" in which donations are based on
the number of goals Yale scores for the season.
After researching the disease, McConnell became very involved with the Foundation, which is “a patient
advocacy organization dedicated to leading and mobilizing resources toward effective management,
treatment and ultimately a cure for myotonic dystrophy.
“Right now, we’re close to a cure – 10 or 15 years away,” said McConnell. “We just need the funds. All
the money we raise at this game is going to research, so I hope this gets people going.”
McConnell became so involved with the foundation in her personal research that the organization recently
asked her to served on its’ board of directors.
“It’s great to connect with these people, and now we’re trying to do something about it as one group and
try to make a difference,” said McConnell.
For more information about Myotonic Dystrophy or to make a donation to the “Get a Grip” campaign, click