Teen doesn’t let disease dampen her passion for softball

All young Mollie Hickman wanted to do was play softball.

Lying in a bed in Children’s Hospital, with her body falling apart, Mollie had a somewhat different goal than some might suspect for a person in her situation.

“When she was staying in the hospital for a while she kept saying, ‘I can’t do this. I have to get out of here. I have to go play softball,’” recalled Debbie Hickman, her mother. “Her big thing was she kept saying ‘I gotta play softball. I gotta play softball.’”

Mollie, who resides in Mill Creek, has accomplished her dream. In just seven months, she’s gone from wondering if she was going to survive to returning to her softball team, which will represent the state of Washington at the Western Regionals of the Majors (Ages 11-12) Little League Softball World Series this weekend in San Bernardino, Calif.

In January, Mollie was diagnosed with Juvenile Dermatomyositis (JDM), an autoimmune deficiency characterized by muscle inflammation, extreme fatigue, skin rash and difficulty swallowing. She had been sick for almost five months and lost about 80 percent of her muscles, not to mention weight loss from being unable to eat or chew.

“Her body attacked itself,” Debbie Hickman said about her daughter, who just turned 13 years old last week,

“The two main conditions she had were muscle loss and muscle weakness. She lost the ability to do everyday tasks like walking up stairs, taking showers, using zippers and holding utensils. She couldn’t write.”

“If you put it into softball terms, it’s been a real game-changer,” Mollie added, “for my outlook on softball and life.”

Mollie’s disease is extremely rare. According to Dr. Clayton Sontheimer, Mollie’s primary doctor at Seattle Children’s Hospital, one in 300,000 children have it annually.

Before she even knew what was going on, she pledged her commitment to softball manager Steve Stoddard, who visited Mollie one day in the winter while she was lying in bed.

“Initially, Steve came to visit her, and (Mollie) said, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong, but I have to play softball,’” Debbie Hickman recalled.

During that time, Mollie missed a couple months of school. More devastating than that — at least to her — was the thought of not playing softball for the first time since she could remember.

“I like every single thing about softball,” Mollie said. “Every part of the game. Outfield, infield, pitching, hitting, catching, everything.”

Treatment began immediately. Mollie took 22 pills a day at one point and was given other medications intravenously. As soon as things began to get under control, Mollie’s attention immediately turned back to the sport she loves.

Sontheimer was really impressed with Mollie’s positive attitude. While being diagnosed with JDM can hinder someone’s spirit, Sontheimer said Mollie was down for one or two days and then began to focus on getting better in the hopes of playing softball.

“She did really well,” Sontheimer said. “She had a super positive attitude going in. That competitive spirit from softball was visible.”

The Hickmans got a physical therapist that worked with Mollie every day. Starting in March, she began throwing again. A month later she was running and fielding. Her last test, in early May, was to see if she could slide and get back up. Mollie passed her final test with flying colors.

“When I was getting better, the one thing that would make me feel the most normal was when I’d play softball,” Mollie said. “Every appointment would be, ‘what can I do? When can I slide?’”

Sontheimer admits that he was more concerned about Mollie overexerting herself than his usual patients, just because she was so eager to push herself and see what she could accomplish.

“Most of the patients kind of self-limit what they can do while rebuilding muscles,” Sontheimer said. “I’m worried about Mollie a little more. She might push herself a little too hard. Mollie’s so excited to get back to everything so quickly.”

Once Mollie was finally on the field, Stoddard was happy to have her back. He said Mollie is a “cornerstone” of his team and “just a delight to coach.” However, when she initially returned, the manager was more than a little worried to put her on the field.

“When she first came back from the illness she was still Mollie,” Stoddard said. “All that energy and enthusiasm. … But I was very nervous when a ball was hit at her or she was running toward home (plate). It would literally send a chill up my spine.”

Debbie Hickman, who is one of Stoddard’s assistant coaches, said she, too, was a little apprehensive about her daughter playing softball again so quickly.

“I’ve coached her team for a lot of years but I was really glad I was (a) coach this year so I could keep an eye on her,” Debbie Hickman said. “It was sort of scary when she started playing.”

One night in May, Mollie had a collision at home plate. Stoddard and Hickman rushed out of the dugout to check on her. They pulled her out of the game and gave her a thorough examination.

She was fine.

“It’s been a little scary,” Debbie Hickman said. “It was a life-threatening, really serious condition. It’s scary and fun to watch (Mollie) at the same time.”

Debbie Hickman is no stranger to the softball field. She’s coached Mollie’s team for several years, and her oldest daughter, Mollie’s sister, Megan, just graduated from Jackson High School where she played softball for the Timberwolves.

Mollie, who just finished seventh grade at Gateway Middle School, now takes nine medications daily, and two others once a week. She still goes into Children’s Hospital for intravenous medicines every few weeks.

Debbie Hickman says one of Mollie’s biggest challenges now is dealing with the side effects of her various medicines, which includes fatigue, headaches and stomach aches.

“She goes 100 percent, but her body’s not ready to give 100 percent,” Stoddard said, adding that she gets worn out a little more quickly.

Mollie played well in last weekend’s state tournament. Her Mill Creek All-Stars lost to Gig Harbor in the semifinals, but worked its way back through the consolation bracket. Mill Creek then beat Gig Harbor twice, including a 7-4 victory in Sunday’s state championship game, to punch its ticket to Southern California.

Mollie was the winning pitcher in the championship game and also hit a double.

The Mill Creek team features six girls — including Mollie — that have played together for four years.

“They’re a unique group of girls,” Stoddard said of his team. “We thought they had the potentioal to go to the (Little League Softball) World Series.”

In addition to Mollie, the team consists of Natalie Gorski, Adele Guzman, Allison Endreson, Courtney Barbato, Emily Mackay, Emily Wininger, Anna Golebiewski, Sophia Stoddard, Haley Cottingham, Kristina Day, Alyssa Avalos and Kali Suits. Ken Day is an assistant coach.

The Mill Creek All-Stars are the second softball team from their league, and first in six years, to advance to the Western Regional. Stoddard admits he doesn’t know what level of competition Mill Creek will face, but expects his team to rise to the occasion.

“I’m planning on winning,” Stoddard said. “I think these girls have the ability to do it.”

Mollie’s really excited to step out on the mound at Al Houghton Stadium at 10 a.m. Saturday when Mill Creek — or “Washington” as the team is now called — plays Idaho in the tournament’s first game.

Regardless of the outcome, Mollie is just excited to be able to play softball again. She will continue to go through infusion treatment at Children’s — she went right after the district championship game — until September, when she hopes her disease will be in full remission.

About 60 percent of children stay in remission their whole life, while the other 40 percent continue varying degrees of treatment, Debbie Hickman said.

Mollie hopes that she is in that first group, and can continue her already storied softball career.

“I feel so lucky just to be playing and be out on the field,” Mollie said. “I was almost dead. I’m so lucky. … I was comatose on the couch and now I’m going to San Bernardino.”

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