“Hey y’all! My name is Serra,” her letter starts out. “Before the last week of February, I was an everyday normal 15-year-old going to school. I played snare drum in the band and finished my last game in varsity basketball.”
Three days later, her “everyday normal” life ended forever. She woke up in the middle of the night in severe pain, couldn’t keep her food down, could hardly sleep and over the course of the next three weeks she lost 30 pounds.
Serra Pearson went through test after test, endless hospital visits and several diagnoses over the next few months. She was passing out, she was getting dizzy, she still couldn’t eat or sleep and she’d lost another 20 pounds. She couldn’t go to school, spent weeks in the hospital and was given yet another diagnosis.
On April 1, she took her last steps.
Finally, Serra and her family found the source of her trouble this summer when she was diagnosed with AAG (Autoimmune Autonomic Ganglionopathy), a disease with only about 80 known cases, and she is the first pediatric patient to suffer from it. Typically caused by cancer, AAG comes from her immune system creating antibodies to fight a tumor, but overreacting and creating far too many, resulting in her body seeing her natural muscles, organs and tissues as foreign things which need to be attacked and killed.
At one point, Serra lost all movement and even lost the ability to breathe on her own. Doctors have helped rectify that problem, though no treatment yet has been deemed successful in making her better and restoring full function. Restrained to her wheelchair, life for 15-year-old Serra is far different than it was six months ago and it will certainly never be the same.
“It was her dream to play basketball in college,” Serra’s mother Jenny Pearson said Thursday. “And I know she would have, because she’s just amazing.”
Raised in Hatley, Mississippi, Serra is also a huge Mississippi State sports fan. Basketball in particular, as you’d imagine.
So, Thursday afternoon, MSU’s women’s basketball team took the hour drive to Hatley to surprise Serra in the gym she had played her last game in.
She won’t get to play again, they know, but that doesn’t mean she can’t still be part of the team.
Head coach Vic Schaefer and his players, before dancing, playing, talking and laughing with her, presented Serra with her own MSU basketball jersey with her name on the back. They then asked her to join them for their first game this fall, to come sit on the bench for their season-opener in Starkville.
“Getting to see them and know they’re here for me – it’s just awesome hearing them say I’m part of their team,” Serra said. “They’re amazing girls.”
Serra was also gifted a trip to Disney World, though as her mother observed later, “This means probably more to her than going to Disney.”
“We all take for granted every day what we get to do in life,” Jenny continued. “My child won’t be back on the court to play basketball. To give her that hope of just being able to sit on the sidelines and be a part of the team – I’m speechless.”
Schaefer often preaches to his team the idea of living and playing for something bigger than yourself. There are people with far greater struggles than any you go through, he will tell his players.
Easy enough to hear from your coach and halfway dismiss without any evidence. Savannah Carter, a senior guard under Schaefer, admitted as much. It’s not real until you see it for yourself. Now, she says, she won’t be thinking about how tired she is when she gets up for a 6 a.m. workout. She’ll be thinking about Serra.
She’ll be remembering the smile on Serra’s face when the team walked into the gym. The laughter when they danced with her in her wheelchair and the genuine gratitude she could hardly express.
“That’s the thing about Serra,” her high school basketball coach Scott Carter said, “she’s so humble and sweet, everything that happens to her, it’s like she can’t believe it. It’s almost surreal for her. That’s what you’re seeing on her face when she saw the Lady Bulldogs standing there, when she was given a Mississippi State jersey with her name on it and she was asked by Coach Schaefer to sit on the bench with the team in their first game. It moved me to tears.”
For Serra, the fight goes on. The bills are adding up and treatments are ongoing.
For MSU’s staff and players, it seems a bit unfair to leave her and go back to playing basketball when she cannot. But now, as Schaefer had so often told them, they have someone to play for. And they’ll see Serra again. That first game is in just a couple months.
“It’s really a special day,” Schaefer said. “What a blessing to have an opportunity to come here and be a light for somebody that’s in a fight for their life. As much of a blessing as it was to her, it was tenfold what she did for our kids today and my staff and I. It really brings things in perspective. Down two with two to go ain’t near as bad as you think it is.”