Haley Brooks wears a ball cap for a different reason than she once did.
About two years ago, the brunette curls that adorn her head today were replaced by the bald head she had gained after going through chemotherapy.
Today, she puts on her ball cap for the love of the game.
The 14-year-old just wrapped up her first season playing softball since having dealt with circumstances dictated by a rare blood disorder called Diamond-Blackfan Anemia.
“I’m good,” Haley said. “Things are good now.”
However, until this year, she was unable to resume her favorite pastime because of her health.
Diamond-Blackfan Anemia is a rare genetic blood disorder in which a person’s bone marrow — the center of their bones where blood cells are made — “does not make enough red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout the body,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Haley was an eighth-grader at Lake Forest Middle School last year, and she got back to playing softball after a two-year break this past season. She played with the Lady Wildcats, one of the teams in the league led by the Bradley County Parks and Recreation department.
Jimmy Ellis of Bradley County Parks and Recreation knew Haley before her doctors told her she was not well enough to play.
After a couple years away from playing the sport, he expected she might not return. She proved him wrong.
“It was determination and the will to not quit,” Ellis said. “She’s not a quitter.”
When Haley stepped off the field to focus on her health, Ellis said one umpire in particular was always asking how Haley was doing. Ellis said Bill Riales, an Amateur Softball Association umpire, would often greet Ellis with the question, “Where’s my girl?”
Once Haley did return, Riales volunteered his time to help her get back up to speed on her catching and batting skills. She and her mother, Lisa Brooks, said he would often stay well after a game ended to pitch balls to Haley so she could get some extra batting practice and feedback on how she was doing.
Lisa said he told her he had compassion for Haley because he had already seen the effects of chemotherapy when his wife had cancer.
“It means so much,” Lisa said.
At the end of the most recent season, Ellis presented her with a plaque from the Bradley County Parks and Recreation and the Cherokee Girls Softball Association.
In a frame with a plate bearing a special inscription are clippings from a Cleveland Daily Banner article that described and depicted when Haley received a bedroom makeover from a nonprofit organization called Special Spaces that helps children with serious illnesses.
Ellis said the photos of Haley with a bald head served as a good reminder of what she overcame to play softball again.
“It’s something to show her we remember and are thinking about her,” Ellis said.
Haley had a long way to go before she could get back to the softball diamond.
On July 25, 2012, being on the field was not an option. She was a patient in the Vanderbilt University Medical Center getting ready to undergo a bone marrow transplant.
Because her disorder impacted her bone marrow’s ability to make the red blood cells flowing through her body, she needed a transplant donated by someone whose bone marrow did work well.
Before the transplant, she had to undergo chemotherapy, and receiving blood transfusions was a normal occurrence. Spending roughly five months in the hospital around the time she received the transplant, Lisa said Haley had to deal with some complications, including one in which her body attempted to reject the new bone marrow. After she was released from the hospital, she was still required to return weekly for several months.
While to this day she still has to visit the hospital for checkups every few months, Haley can play again.
“I love it,” Haley said.
It was hard at first to know what she could physically handle, she said. Haley was so determined to play that she at times tried to play even when she was not quite feeling up to par, not telling her parents, teammates or coaches that she needed a break.
“There were nights she would give everything,” Lisa said.
The day following a particularly exhausting softball game, she would sometimes be feeling weak and tired, so much so that she would have to go to the doctor.
Lisa said a doctor once did some tests the day following an evening game and found out that Haley’s hemoglobin level — the level of a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout a person’s body — was only a 5.
A normal hemoglobin level for a female tends to be between 12.1 and 15.1, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Haley ended up having to have two blood transfusions that day to make sure enough oxygen-carrying blood was traveling through her veins.
Still, Lisa and her husband, Danny, allowed Haley to continue to play softball as long as she felt able — if she would tell them when she did not feel up to it.
“It gave her something positive in a negative situation,” Lisa said.
Haley said she enjoys her friendships with her teammates as well as the game itself. The girls recently traveled to Florida for a game, and her family made the trip together.
Ellis called her an “inspiration” to her Lady Wildcats teammates this past season, pointing out she was not going to quit just because the going was tough.
“She’s fought through it all,” Ellis said. “She’s a strong young lady.”
Haley said it has been a discouraging process, but her Christian faith has been a source of encouragement.
Posted on her bedroom wall is a verse from the Bible — Philippians 4:13 — she said sums up her thoughts on whether or not she can do things like play softball after dealing with a serious illness.
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” it reads.
Haley credits divine providence for helping her get better.
In early 2012, young friend Violet Lee and other members of the community organized a local fundraiser and drive to help people sign up for the National Marrow Donor Program. The goal was to have more people sign up so there would be more of a chance of a match being found for Haley.
With a variety of factors going into whether or not a person can donate bone marrow to another, Haley said she credits God for the chance to undergo surgery that helped her get back to playing softball.
“He didn’t have to let me find a donor or anything, but he did,” Haley said.
Since the transplant, she has turned her attention to her future goals.
This fall, she will be a freshman at Bradley Central High School, and she has been in the process of trying out for her new school’s softball team. Haley has already been through one set of tryouts and will continue to train with other prospective players this summer before a final tryout in late July.
Haley said she wants to continue softball through her college years, if possible.
For part of the months she stayed at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, she stayed in a room that overlooked the university’s softball field.
The young softball lover said she watched the games when she could and began to think that the university was one she wanted to attend.
After high school, her goal is to attend Vanderbilt to become a doctor or nurse to help kids like her who have to spend a lot of time in the hospital because of serious health conditions like cancer.
“I know what the kids are going through,” Haley said. “I want to help them.”
In July, she is set to return to Vanderbilt for a three-month checkup to make sure the bone marrow transplant is still doing what it was supposed to do.
However, she said she is not worried about it, and she is feeling better and ready to look ahead to things like high school and college.
Lisa said children and teenagers often don’t know when their stories inspire others, and that has been the case with Haley.
She said she met another softball mom who has been dealing with breast cancer, and the woman called Haley an “inspiration” for her determination to overcome her illness and do what she wants to do.
“She’s been able to say ‘It’s OK. It gets better,’” Lisa said.
While some young people might have been hesitant to start playing a sport again after a two-year break, Haley said she was counting down the days until she could play, “bugging” her doctors with questions in the meantime.
“Can I play yet?” she often repeated. “Can I play yet?”
Haley said she has learned from seeing other patients in the hospital and learning of the death of a classmate at Lake Forest last year that life is not something that should be taken for granted. Because of that, she said she wants to live it well.
That’s why she is continuing to pursue her interest in softball and future career goals.
“Do what you want to do. Never give up on anything,” Haley said. “Life is short.”
If she does not make the team at Bradley Central just yet, Haley said she is determined to keep trying to join the team for future seasons, so she can play the game she loves.
“They won’t be able to get rid of me that fast,” she said with a laugh.