A netball scholar’s dreams were crushed after she was diagnosed with three conditions within a year that left her unable to walk.
Letchen du Plessis, 20, from Pretoria, South Africa, first became unwell when her hip ‘popped’ while playing the sport in May last year.
After enduring surgery and 10 months of physiotherapy, Miss du Plessis, who studied business science, was still struggling to walk.
An MRI scan later revealed a lack of blood supply to her hip was causing the bone to die in a condition known as avascular necrosis (AVN).
After having her last of three surgeries in June to increase her hip’s blood supply, she was later diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome – dubbed ‘suicide disease’.
And just months later, the hopeful athlete was told she had the disorder dystonia when she became unable to control her foot and it contracted into a claw.
Miss du Plessis, who had hoped to move to the UK to pursue her dream of being a professional athlete, now relies on strong doses of painkillers to get through the day and has no idea what her future holds.
Letchen du Plessis’ dreams of being a professional netball player were crushed when she was diagnosed with three conditions within a year that left her unable to walk. Pictured before she became unwell, she now relies on strong painkillers just to get through the day
After her hip ‘popped’ while on the court in May last year, Miss du Plessis’ leg started to turn purple when the blood supply to her hip became cut off, which caused the bone to start dying. Pictured on the day of her third surgery, she had to have her bone drilled to boost blood flow
X-ray shows Miss du Plessis’ pelvis after she underwent three rounds of hip surgery
‘In May 2017 I was running towards the goalpost and my teammate threw the ball behind me,’ Miss du Plessis said.
‘My left leg was already planted so when I caught the ball, I felt my leg go numb and my hip popped.
‘I tried to shake it off and tried to continue playing but I knew something was wrong.
‘I completely tore the labrum and a couple of hip flexors in my left hip, which had to be repaired by surgery.’
Miss du Plessis then underwent three surgeries to boost the blood supply to her hip.
‘The doctor didn’t know why mine occurred, most of the time doctors don’t know why it happens,’ she said.
‘I had to have emergency surgery on my hip in June 2018 – I’m 20 years old and had three hip surgeries.
‘The only way to cure AVN is with a hip replacement but I didn’t want one so young.’
While in recovery, she spent two months bedbound before slowing being able to walk with crutches.
Miss du Plessis noticed, however, her left leg was ice cold and purple, with her being unable to move her toes.
‘Two months after surgery I noticed my toes didn’t work,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t move them [and] the more weight I put on my leg, the pain got worse.
‘Back to the doctor again and after every test imaginable, I got another diagnosis. This time, CRPS.
‘The pain is equivalent to having had an ice bath and then immediately getting into a hot shower. I have this pain all day and night.’
While on medication to cope with the pain, Miss du Plessis’ foot started to lose its function until it resembled a claw.
‘That’s its permanent position now,’ she said.
‘My foot curls into a ball and it feels as though my toes are going to break. They make repeated movements up and down.
‘The AVN makes the other two conditions worse because I will need a hip replacement but having surgery might cause the CRPS to spread over the rest of my body.’
Medics are also unable to give a frustrated Miss du Plessis an explanation as to why this all happened.
‘No doctor can explain why it happened. That is the most difficult thing to wrap my head around, the not knowing part. Will it spread? Only time will tell,’ she said.
Miss du Plessis turned down a hip replacement due to her only being 20 years old. Pictured after her final surgery, it wasn’t long before she was diagnosed with regional pain syndrome
Unable to put weight on her leg due to the discomfort, she now relies on crutches to get about
Pictured before, she hoped to move to the UK to pursue her dream of being an athlete
After battling AVN and extreme pain, Miss du Plessis lost control of her toes in a disorder known as dystonia. Her foot is now permanently stuck in a claw position (picrured)
WHAT ARE THE THREE CONDITIONS?
Avascular necrosis (AVN) is the death of bone tissue due to a lack of blood supply.
It can lead to tiny breaks in the bone and its eventual collapse.
AVN can cause severe pain when weight is put on the affected bone.
Complex regional pain syndrome
Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) is a poorly understood condition that occurs when a person experiences severe and debilitating discomfort.
Most cases are triggered by an injury, with the resulting pain being much more severe than normal.
Affected areas also often become swollen, stiff and undergo changes in colour or temperature.
Many cases gradually improve over time, however, some never go away.
Dystonia is the name of uncontrolled and sometimes painful muscle spasms.
The affected body part may twist into an unusual position, such as a bent neck.
Sufferers may also experience tremors or uncontrolled blinking.
As well as living with constant pain, Miss du Plessis has also been forced to give up the sport she loves.
‘I loved playing netball because I could challenge myself every day,’ she said.
‘My life revolved around netball and I wanted to finish my degree and move to the UK to play professionally for a club.’
Miss du Plessis life now consists of regular doctors and physio visits.
She also takes Parkinson’s medication and strong painkillers.
‘If all that doesn’t work, the next step will be Botox in the muscles which are contracting,’ Miss du Plessis said.
Although the ordeal has been difficult for her to accept, Miss du Plessis is determined to stay positive.
‘The easiest thing to be in life is negative and make life as difficult as possible,’ she said.
‘Always be grateful for what you have, especially your health, and celebrate every accomplishment.
‘When you can’t control what is happening, challenge yourself to control the way you respond to what is happening.
‘There are a lot of “what ifs?”. Like what if I chose a different sport? What if I just came off the court when my coach told me to?
‘You can’t live life being stuck on these questions.’
The once sporty Miss du Plessis (pictured before) is taking Parkinson’s drugs, and spends her life going back and forward between doctors and physiotherapists, who are unable to give her much of a prognosis. She may have to have Botox injections to stop her muscles contracting
Pictured before the ordeal in a recovery bath after a minor sports injury, Miss du Plessis likened the discomfort of complex regional pain syndrome to ‘having had an ice bath and then immediately getting into a hot shower’. ‘I have this pain all day and night,’ she added
Her leg is pictured left being monitored in hospital. Right is the limb after it turned purple