Latear “Tia” Eason averaged merely 3.2 points and 1.9 assists in her four seasons as an LSU women’s basketball player, but the 5-foot-8 point guard from Chicago’s south side routinely displayed the kind of toughness and resiliency no stat sheet could measure.
Her freshman year, Eason blew out her knee in practice after the Southeastern Conference tournament. Surgery followed. Her sophomore year, she broke her collarbone hustling for a loose ball against Louisville in the second round of the NCAA tournament. That meant more surgery.
She suffered one concussion her junior year and another as a senior.
But she always bounced back, fighting off every injury en route to starting 67 games and playing in 40 more.
Then, just when she figured all the medical issues were in her past, Eason woke up May 10 with something that proved to be much more complex than the obstacles she’d met while playing her favorite sport.
“I just woke up that morning and it was hard for me to see,” Eason said. “Everything was blurry, and it was hard for me to keep my balance. I knew something was wrong right then. I was scared.”
Her condition quickly worsened.
Days later, Eason was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disorder that occurs when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the peripheral nervous system in response to infectious illness such as a respiratory infection or the stomach flu.
Guillain-Barre, named after the French physicians who first described it, can have long-term affects and even lead to paralysis in some cases.
Eason spent three weeks in the hospital, including two weeks in intensive care, but is expected to make a full recovery.
“It’s one of those things that you read about in your textbooks, but all your professors skip over it because they’re like, ‘Oh, you’ll never see this,’” LSU trainer Micki Collins said.
According to the Mayo Clinic, Guillain-Barre effects only one or two people per 100,000.
It often starts with tingling sensations in the feet or hands and works its way upward, but the disorder’s attack on Eason began in the cranial nerves, leading to the headaches and blurred vision and making it more difficult to identify.
Collins figured Eason may be experiencing post-concussion migraines.
Doctors ran a battery of tests on Eason the first 48 hours, but the results kept coming back negative.
“No one knew what was going on and nobody had any answers,” said Katherine Graham, who played alongside Eason at LSU the past four years. “That was probably the toughest thing. Watching her deteriorate so fast was hard on us. We didn’t know what was going on.”
Two days after Eason first experienced symptoms, Collins shot video of her at the former LSU guard’s apartment. Not only was Eason struggling more with her vision and balance, but now her speech was slurred and her body so weak she couldn’t stand on her own.
“I wanted someone to see what I was seeing,” Collins said. “I was so afraid something extreme was going to happen, I wanted to be able to show people what I was seeing.”
Eason got the Guillain-Barre diagnosis later that day, barely a week before she was to receive her LSU degree. She soon lay in ICU connected to a ventilator.
“Watching Tia for four years, she came back from everything,” Graham said. “I knew she was going to be OK, because she’s such a fighter. I’d never seen anything keep her down.”
Eason’s teammates rallied around the player whose fearless play once inspired them.
They would sit at her hospital bed and help her perform seemingly simple exercises to strengthen her weakened hands and feet. Or they’d turn on her iPod, flip to “Motivation” by Kelly Rowland and watch Eason move her arms, ever so gingerly, to the rhythm of her favorite song.
Everybody cheered for Eason.
The day after LSU held its graduation ceremonies, Gaines Foster, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, showed up at ICU for Eason’s graduation party and presented her degree in communication studies to the star patient’s family.
Collins checked on Eason so much you’d have thought she was her nurse.
“My support system was unbelievable,” Eason said. “I never would have thought it would have been like that.”
But as much as Eason enjoyed the support, she was having a hard time weaning herself off the ventilator. If she couldn’t start breathing on her own soon, doctors were going to perform a tracheotomy, which requires an incision in the patient’s neck and the insertion of a tube carrying oxygen to the lungs.
That proved to be a turning point.
“The doctors didn’t know I could hear them, but I heard them talking about it in my room,” Eason said. “I think it motivated me.”
Eason was breathing on her own within a couple of days, showing improved movement in her extremities and suddenly making a fastbreak out of intensive care.
She blew through in-house rehab with equal zest.
On one of her visits late in Eason’s stay, Collins stepped off the elevator to the sound of a bouncing basketball.
“She was dribbling up and down the hallway doing ball-handling drills,” Collins said.
Eason has been staying with her sister, Eureka Saunders, in Dallas since leaving the hospital early last month. She is still about 10 pounds shy of her playing weight, but works out daily at a nearby gym. Recently, she went into Eureka’s backyard and took jump shots for the first time.
Her neurologist says Eason’s vision should be back at full strength in a few weeks. He told her Wednesday she could start driving again.
“He said I can go back to doing everything I did before I went to the hospital,” Eason said. “My everyday activities.”
Wherever life as an LSU grad takes her, Eason can look back at the Tuesday morning in May when she began her battle with a foreign opponent and won the fight.
But even with her degree in hand, she isn’t ready to stop chasing loose balls.
Once she’s back in shape and back to her old self, Eason plans to make a run at playing overseas.
“I’ve been playing since I was 7 years old,” she said. “I always wanted to play professionally. It’s something that I’ve always loved doing. I’m not ready to give it up.
“And I’m not going to let this stop me.”