This has not been the 2011 that Texas Woman’s University head softball coach Richie Bruister had anticipated or planned for.

“It has been a preseason like no other for us,” Bruister said. “We came back with expectations of doing just the normal routine of starting preseason practice with conditioning and skill training and all the stuff that you do before school starts. Unfortunately, it did not happen that way.”

Abby Burns, a senior left-handed pitcher and power hitter, was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) in early January. Suddenly, Bruister’s team was not only going to be without a pitcher that had tossed 82.1 innings and hit .327 with seven home runs last season, they were dealing with a teammate that had critical medical issues.

Sophomore pitcher/outfielder Kayla Williams explains Abby’s path to diagnosis.

“Abby is one of my best friends on the team,” Williams said. “Over Christmas break, she started getting sick. Her gums were hurting and she thought it was her wisdom teeth. She saw a dentist and her wisdom teeth do need to be pulled, but she just kept getting more sick. We thought it was just a cold.

“My mom is a cancer nurse in Longview, Texas, so when Abby gets sick, she calls me and asks for my mom’s advice. She sounded sick, but we all thought it was just a cold. Then I came to Denton for New Year’s. When I saw her, I knew there was no way it was just a cold. She looked terrible.”

Doctors first diagnosed Burns with mononucleosis, but her health continued to decline. Williams’ mother, Christi, got Burns to the emergency room, where tests revealed the AML on Jan. 11.

“We loaded up the bus when the team reported to campus,” Bruister said, “and we headed to the hospital to see Abby. We were on our way there when we got the phone call that Abby had leukemia. She was packing up her bags and heading down to Dallas to start chemo immediately. It was a big shock for us.

“We turned the bus back around. We told the team what was going on, told them to pray a lot and do whatever you can do to be there for Abby. The next day, we were able to go down to the hospital and see her with the team. We decorated her room since she was going to be there for a while. Pink is her favorite color, so we took a lot of pink down there just to help her pass the three weeks she was in the hospital, and to let her know that we were going to be there for her and do everything we could for her.”

The support of her teammates, the TWU community and the softball community has been critical to Burns’ progress. Burns’ health insurance does not kick in until March 1, and she is without family support. Softball and TWU have become Abby’s family.

“One of our parents, Robyn Readicker [mother of TWU sophomore infielder Jordan Readicker] has been at the hospital just about every day with Abby,” Bruister said. “She stepped up in a real big way. Then Kayla Williams mom, Christi, was there on the weekends to lend some support and get Robyn some time off. They just took time out of their own schedule, and they are amazing people to step up when there just wasn’t anybody there for Abby.”

TWU, a number of other Texas schools and the entire U.S. softball community have come together to help Burns through this crisis situation. Several collegiate softball teams, including Abilene Christian, Cameron University and Texas Wesleyan, will be wearing orange “Abby #19” bracelets during the upcoming season.

“We knew the softball community was going to come out,” Bruister said. “We’re a close group of people. I was just overwhelmed [by the support]. I think the biggest thing for us was a national prayer call we had on a Monday night. People from all over the country were able to come together.”

“Dot Richardson helped organize the call, and Jennie Finch got on a few minutes late and said ‘Hey, this is Jennie, I’m sorry I’m a couple of minutes late.’ The look on our team’s face and how that moved Abby was just unbelievable. To have Gold Medal Olympians and the pioneers of our sport taking time out of their day for this, it’s just unbelievable. You can’t say thank you enough for those people taking time out of their busy schedule to do that for Abby and our team. It was very moving, uplifting and motivational,” Bruister said.

It has put life into perspective for the team. It’s not all about softball. It’s more than that.
-- Kayla Williams

Among all of the turmoil created by having a critically ill team member, Bruister and the Pioneers still have a season to play. TWU opened its 2011 season at the Whitten Inn Classic, hosted by Abilene Christian, going 1-3 on the weekend.

“The team has stayed strong,” Bruister said. “We have put Abby first and all of our efforts have gone there to help her with her battle because life is bigger than a game that we play. It gives us opportunities and presents us things to help prepare us. We’ve been able to give back and at the same time, they’ve stayed focused, they are ready to play. It’s uplifting now that Abby is out of the hospital. [She was able] to travel with us this weekend. When Abby was gone, it was like we were an incomplete team, but now that she’s with us, we’re complete now. The team is uplifted by it.

“Seeing the team come together like that is really amazing. We’re going to do our best. We’re excited. We still have a lot of talent and we’re looking forward to a good season.”

With Burns out of the hospital and back in her Denton, Texas, apartment, Williams has had a bit of time to reflect on the situation.

“When Abby was in the hospital for four weeks,” Williams said, “I was there every second I could be. I think it has been hard on her because it has hit her all at once. At the same time, she has already been through so much in her life that I feel like to her this is just another stepping stone to find out who she is. She’s just ready to be back on the softball field and playing with her team and feeling normal again.”

“With cancer patients,” Bruister explained, “it’s all a mental thing, and Abby’s plan is to be back on the field next year. Those are her goals. This year, she’s going to have to go through another round of chemo sometime around the first of March, then we’ll hopefully find a bone marrow match to do the transplant and that’s about a six-month process. We’ll hope all of that goes well and we’ll have her back with us full strength next year.

“She’s on track to graduate this summer,” Bruister said. “We were able to keep her in classes full-time this spring and our professors are working with her to make sure we keep her on track. That’s what she wants to do, and I feel that she’ll do it. She’s a survivor and a fighter. She’s been that her whole life.”

“I couldn’t ask for a better support system,” Burns said via email. “My team and everyone else have gone beyond what you can think is possible to make sure everything is taken care of. I am so thankful to each and every one of them for everything they have done.”

Bruister is extremely aware that Burns’ battle is far from over, and more support will be needed in the weeks and months to come.

“Abby doesn’t have any insurance,” Bruister said. “Her insurance will kick in on March 1, but all of her medical bills up to this point, she needs assistance with that. It’s not fair to her … that she’s left with these medical bills in her name, so we’re trying to do everything that we can.

“Lots of money has come in, but we need lots and lots more to keep her going. Medical stuff is expensive. It goes quickly. The first two days in the hospital when she started chemo was $25,000. We’re looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

TWU has set up a page on its athletic department website to keep the community aware of updates on Burns’ condition and fundraising efforts. The Pioneers are also organizing blood drives and bone marrow donor registry testing in hopes of increasing Burns’ odds when she is ready for the bone marrow transplant.

As Bruister and his Pioneers team begin their season, he can look back on the last month with thanks.

“I want to thank everyone, from me and the TWU softball family,” Bruister said. “There are so many people I can’t say thank you to for all of their prayers and support. We still need their support for Abby and this battle that she’s up against.”

“This has brought our team so much closer,” Williams said. “It has put life into perspective for the team. It’s not all about softball. It’s more than that. We have a family and we’re all going to be there for [Abby]. We know that after this, if anything else were to happen, our team is here for us, along with the TWU community and the softball community.”