Cystic fibrosis destroyed Tiffany Tate’s dream of playing collegiate basketball.
She doesn’t want to let it destroy her life.
Tate was a star girls basketball player at Chandler High about a decade ago, helping the team to a pair of state titles.
But she also had the debilitating genetic disease, which results in frequent lung infections and other disabilities throughout the body. If untreated, cystic fibrosis results in early death.
It worsened as her high school career progressed, and by the time she was a senior, Tate couldn’t last more than five minutes on the court without needing a rest.
Goodbye, college basketball.
“I had gotten recruit letters to play from other states,” Tate said. “But they had no idea what I had. If they did, they never would have taken me.”
Although her playing days were finished, Tate found refuge on the sidelines. She was the Seton Catholic freshman coach for two years beginning in 2006. And for the last three, she has been a varsity assistant at the school.
But last March, even that became an obstacle.
The Sentinels were preparing for the 4A-II state tournament, in which the semifinals and state championship game would be played in the rarified air of Prescott. Since Seton was the favorite to win the title, there was a good chance the team would need to make the trip.
While Tate made no secret of her condition, the coaches downplayed how much it affected her. In reality, Tate spends about 3 1/2 hours per day doing breathing treatments, and takes 10 pills in the morning, 10 at night and about five throughout the day. The disease keeps her from getting a full-time job.
“I knew it wasn’t something she really wanted to talk about, so it would be, ‘Yeah, she’s got asthma,’” Seton coach Karen Self said about her conversations with players. “Like, oh yeah, her asthma is really bad today.”
But there was no hiding it now. If the team made the semis, Tate would need an oxygen mask to help her breathe. So the team went up to Prescott before the tournament not only to get used to playing at the higher elevation, but to familiarize themselves with Tate’s battle.
“I went to her and said, ‘Tiff, we can’t get you up to Prescott without a trial run,’” Self said. “‘We have to know whether you need oxygen or not. The other thing is, we can’t be there in the state semifinals with the kids looking at you with oxygen on, freaking out. We all love Tiff so much that seeing her in that condition is disconcerting. I didn’t want the kids affected by that.”
Soon after the trip, Tate, who had previously resisted joining a list for a double lung transplant, changed her mind. With her condition deteriorating, it was time to make a change.
“My sophomore year, she could move around and pass the ball with us, dribble around,” Seton senior Theresa Wirth said. “But now, it’s gotten progressively worse where she can only stand on the side and pass. To see that over two years, it’s scary.”
“At the end of last season, it became obvious,” Self said. “She needed to go and get on the list.”
Tate filled out the necessary paperwork and went through a battery of tests. The University Medical Center in Tucson approved her in April and she was put on the waiting list.
But in August, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System notified Tate that their insurance would no longer cover the transplant procedure. Since she didn’t have a full-time job and was too old to be on her parents’ insurance, it meant Tate would have to pay for the entire $277,000 procedure.
“It was overwhelming,” Tate said.
When Tate was in high school, she let her coaches know about the cystic fibrosis because it would affect her on the court, but she otherwise kept it quiet. When she was an underclassman on varsity, a newspaper reporter wanted to write a story about her battle with the disease. Tate quickly shut that down.
“I freaked out,” Tate said. “I just didn’t want anybody to know.”
Even recently, she never made it a focal point.
But in desparate need of funds, and since 97 others were also waiting for the transplant while fighting the same monetary and health battle, Tate went public.
She’s done a segment with MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann chronicling the plight of transplant patients. She’s been mentioned in the New York Times and is telling her story to ESPN today. She said she’s done more than 10 interviews.
“It’s been a media circus around her,” Self said.
The increased awareness is working.
Tate has already received enough donation guarantees to pay for the surgery, including one from an anonymous donor who is pledging $10,000 a month until the debt is paid. There is an Arizona Legislative session on Jan. 10 that may revisit the decision to remove prospective transplant patients from being insurance-eligible.
“This has been such an emotional ride,” Tate said. “The $277,000 deficit was overwhelming. For people to want to step up and help alleviate that stress has been truly a blessing.”
Since after-care maintenance or complications can cost thousands of dollars, the fundraising efforts continue.
A benefit concert will take place on Jan. 15 in the school’s gymnasium. On Jan. 27, there will be a silent auction and a dinner at Majerle’s Sports Grill. On Feb. 4 there's a dance-a-thon.
“It’s just been this snowball effect,” Self said. “She’s kind of a well-known name in high school girls basketball if you’ve been around for awhile, regardless of her (cystic fibrosis). To see a person you think you know so well and see their private struggle, it just made people really want to help her out as much as they can.”
Tate didn’t want people to look at her differently because of the cystic fibrosis, and that was a main reason for staying quiet. But now she’s comfortable sharing her story with the world, and she hopes it helps others in similar situations.
“This is a very grueling disease,” Tate said. “It can get you depressed. It just takes a toll on you, especially growing up. In high school, everyone goes through certain things, and on top of it we have (cystic fibrosis), it’s overwhelming. I just wanted to be a mentor to younger kids who have it and feel lost. Just because we have this doesn’t mean we can’t live a normal life.”