As the Scottsdale Community College (SCC) softball team was preparing for its final game of the season, the Artichokes were missing one of their best players, who is battling for her life rather than wins or losses.
Nicole Osteen, a former Cactus softball standout who lost her father one year ago, is facing the toughest battle of her life after being diagnosed with Hemolytic-Uremic Syndrome (HUD).
HUD is a blood disorder that is characterized by low red blood cells, low platelets and kidney failure. Initial symptoms include fever, vomiting and weakness. Most cases occur after infections due to E. coli or can be hereditary, both of which have been ruled out for Osteen.
“Doctors don’t know what caused it. They say it could have been something I ate, but just before I started throwing up I had eaten with my teammates and was sharing food with all of them,” Osteen said recently from her hospital bed at Banner Thunderbird. “None of my teammates had any symptoms, and doctors said they may never know what caused me to contract this.”
Osteen began training with the SCC softball team last summer, immediately after graduating from Cactus, to get a head start on her college athletic career.
“I started working out last summer and it was tough,” she said. “The workouts were hard, but it really made me work harder and it really made me a lot tougher to start my first season in college.”
While SCC has struggled on the field, winning only nine of 50 games, Osteen has become a team leader in her short time on the team. Offensively she is batting .292 (seventh on the team as of April 24), four home runs (tied for second), 23 runs batted in (fourth), 22 runs (third) and 35 hits (fifth) despite being out the past eight games.
“I was really enjoying the time with the girls, and it is a lot different than Cactus,” she said. “I really was starting to hit the ball well and actually had four home runs (she had one in four years at Cactus), which is not like me. I have a lot of friends there and that made the transition a lot easier.”
Then, after a simple hike in the hills with her Artichoke teammates, things turned for the worse.
“We went hiking on Saturday (April 6) and that was the first day everything started,” Osteen said. “I started to not feel well and the next day started throwing up, and it continued until the following Tuesday.”
She made a trip to urgent care, where she was said to be dehydrated. But after returning home she contacted the SCC team trainer, who told her to go to her primary care physician because she was swollen and pale.
“I went to my primary physician and they took blood and ran tests,” Osteen said. “But the results were going to take a couple of days, (so I) was sent home and I was still feeling sick.”
While waiting for the test results, she wound up back in the Banner Thunderbird emergency room days later because the symptoms continued.
“I was still sick and throwing up, so we came to the emergency room April 12 and really just thought I would get some IV fluids and be sent home,” Osteen said. “That was the first time they came in my room and told me my kidneys were failing.”
While doctors originally told her they believed she had HUD, they did a biopsy on her to rule everything else out.
“Even the nurses that would come in and help me said they all had to actually Google HUD because it is so rare,” Osteen said.
After confirming their first thoughts doctors began treating her with a new drug, Soliris, which has been clinically proven to prevent kidney failure in people with Atypical HUS, which has no known cure.
Each dose is given through an IV and takes between 35 to 45 minutes. It is given once a week for about six weeks, and if it works correctly kidney function returns.
Having only been approved for use since 2011, the drug is not cheap, however. It costs an estimated $18,000 per dosage.
Before 2011, treatment consisted of transfusions to replace the blood elements lost, use of blood pressure medications to control hypertension and, as necessary, plasmapheresis. Plasmapheresis clears the blood of the debris that injures the kidney and is done through dialysis.
“We are not sure what my next steps are. All I know is take it easy and don’t over exert myself,” said Osteen, who doctors at the time of the interview expected to return home April 26. As of print she remains in the hospital.
But even after Osteen leaves the hospital, she will have to go through dialysis treatments three days a week for an extended period of time.
“That will be tough, but it is what I will have to do,” Osteen said. “Hopefully the Soliris works and I can recover completely.”
Making things even more emotional, last April her family was at Banner Thunderbird due to the death of her father in a car accident.
“I was here last year so it is hard, but I know he is watching over me,” she said. “It made coming here even scarier, but I honestly believe that my dad is watching me and I just want to keep fighting one day at a time.”
Her team at SCC has visited her numerous times as well as put her No. 5 on the back of their helmets. Her former Cactus teammates visited her, too.
A GoFundMe page to help the family offset high medical costs was set up and, as of April 30, supporters have donated $1,839 to assist the family.
“I really appreciate everything, and I didn’t think that many people would help but when I looked at it recently I was so surprised,” Osteen said. “I just thank everyone for anything, and hopefully I can do something to pay all that forward because it means everything to know that people care.”
Though she is now turning her focus toward recovery, she hopes to regain her strength and eventually return to the field.
“The doctors sound optimistic that the drug is going to work,” Osteen said. “Once I get home, then it is just dialysis and getting through that next step, but I hope to return to the field and play softball again for Scottsdale.”
To donate to Osteen’s GoFundMe campaign, visit gofundme.com/basfy-medical-cost.