Sports community gives Danica strength

Lady Vols, other area athletic teams wear wristbands to draw attention to her health fight

Friday, January 11, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 2
By Rhiannon Potkey

Danica Proulx, right, and her sisters with Lady Vols Evina Westbrook and Rae Burrell

-- Submitted Photo

Danica Proulx held out hope they would return, but she didn’t really expect it to happen. The Tennessee women’s basketball team had beaten Murray State nearly two hours earlier, and the clock was ticking closer to 11 p.m. inside Thompson-Boling Arena.

Proulx wanted to meet Evina Westbrook and Rae Burrell, but didn’t realize they were taking part in an autograph session after the game.

Proulx, 22, managed to have a brief exchange with Burrell right after the final buzzer, and slipped Burrell a bracelet before she raced off to sign for fans.

But Proulx didn’t have time to explain the meaning behind the bracelet, and wondered if she should stick around to try.

Her parents and two sisters, who accompanied Proulx to the game from their home in Tellico Plains, encouraged her to stay. They knew how much it meant to her. They knew how uplifting it would be if it happened.

Just when Proulx assumed Westbrook and Burrell had left the facility for the night, she saw them emerge near the court.

They raced over to greet the family, and Proulx explained why she was handing out the black #DanicaStrong bracelets.

She told Burrell and Westbrook about her health troubles. She told them about her dream of inspiring others to keep fighting.

“I would have completely understood if they didn’t come back out to meet with us. But they ran over and were so excited,” Proulx says. “I was very emotional because these are two big-time players and they care enough about their fans that much. They care enough about me.”

Proulx has been battling life-threatening health issues since she was 13. It started when she was diagnosed with swine flu, which triggered a litany of other problems.

Her immune system lost the ability to fight off illness, and her parathyroid gland shut down.

She developed gastroparesis, a condition in which the stomach doesn’t empty food properly, and had a feeding tube inserted to get nutrients.

Last June, Proulx was diagnosed with late-onset Type I diabetes and placed in the Intensive Care Unit for a week after developing ketoacidosis.

During her hospital stay, Proulx’s family started the #DanicaStrong movement on social media to lift her spirits. One of Proulx’s former co-workers created the #DanicaStrong bracelets and shipped them to her family to distribute.

Proulx realized she could help raise awareness about Type I diabetes by handing them out to friends, celebrities and local athletes.

Her older sister, Danielle, is a photographer and works with several sports teams in the East Tennessee area, including the Tennessee Smokies.

She brought Danica to several of the minor league baseball games last season, and the Smokies players began asking to wear the bracelets.

Athletes at Hiwassee College, where Proulx recently graduated with a degree in communications, and the Monroe County high schools also joined the cause.

“It’s been amazing. When I see people wearing the bracelets, I feel less alone,” Proulx adds. “I feel like I have so many people supporting me and that is what keeps me going.”

Burrell and Westbrook were eager to provide their support once they spoke with Proulx after the game.

“It’s always great to get to meet fans and hear their stories, and especially in this case with everything she’s going through,” explains Burrell, a freshman from Las Vegas. “It was really amazing to hear what she’s been able to push through every single day.”

Westbrook accidentally left her bracelet on the scorer’s table at Auburn after Tennessee’s SEC-opening win last Thursday night, and she quickly messaged Proulx requesting a new one.

The sophomore guard loves interacting with Tennessee fans like Proulx, and using her platform as an athlete to help others.

“It really inspired us to just really look at life differently and get a different perspective,” Westbrook says. “Not everyone has the same opportunities, but she’s able to fight every day and it really pushes us and makes us want to work harder.”

Proulx’s family has cheered for the Lady Vols since moving to Tennessee nearly 16 years ago.

One of Proulx’s favorite memories was receiving an autograph from former All-American Candace Parker.

Proulx began playing basketball at age 3, but had to give it up during her junior year of high school. The doctors told Proulx she could easily break a bone with any kind of contact because of her low calcium levels.

“That was really hard,” says Proulx, who works at the teen center of a local Boys & Girls Club and at a physical therapy office. “I had so many dreams I wanted to pursue in basketball. I loved it and I wanted to play in the WNBA.”

Although most of Proulx’s health problems are not visibly apparent, having to wear a feeding tube made her a bit self-conscious around classmates.

“There were some bullies and people would call me the girl with the tube taped to her face,” Proulx recalls. “It wasn’t easy to deal with because the tube was not me. It was just a part of me. I had a name.”

Proulx’s family has been right by her side throughout her medical travails and numerous doctor visits. Her sisters sometimes feel guilty going places if she has to stay behind.

“We always want her to feel included. That’s why it’s been super cool to see how the bracelets have sparked from one person wanting to wear one to everybody wanting to wear them,” Danielle explains. “It makes me happy to see how good it makes her feel to know people are supporting her and helping her share her message.”

The Proulx family returned to Thompson-Boling Arena last Sunday to watch Tennessee play Missouri. They passed out more bracelets to Cheridene Green, Rennia Davis and Jazmine Massengill.

Proulx spotted Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick walking back to the locker room but says she was hesitant to bother her after a tough loss that went down to the wire.

Proulx asked if Warlick would like a bracelet and told her about her Type I diabetes.

“I would love one,” Warlick said. “How about a picture, too?”

Proulx isn’t sure how her autoimmune conditions and diabetes will impact her future aspirations. There are still too many unknowns. But she wants to keep spreading her message one bracelet at a time.

“I want to be an actress, but until I get there I want to share my story and give people hope to not give up on their dream just because they are sick,” Proulx says.

“I want them to keep going and know that if they keep pushing they can get through it.”