Taylor Hardin had big plans for her junior year of high school.
A stand-out basketball player, a few of her goals included scoring her 1,000th career point and seeing her team go to state.
Both of those things happened, but it wasn't without a lot of struggle and hardship.
In September 2018 Taylor, 16, went in for a regular check-up and unexpectedly her pediatrician decided to do blood work. Those tests revealed that Taylor had idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP), a blood disorder that leads to bleeding and excessive bruising due to low levels of platelets, the cells that help blood clot.
The diagnosis was a shock to Taylor's parents, Frank and Sabrina Henderson.
"The funny thing is there weren't any symptoms. The symptoms are bruising and fatigue but she's 16 and that's not that unusual. We went in for a wellness check-up and her doctor out of the blue decided to do lab work. Looking back on that now, I think it was a God thing," Sabrina said.
It was a scary situation.
They didn't wait for her pediatrician to make a referral. Instead, they called a friend who recommended Dr. Brad Baltz, an oncologist/hematologist in Little Rock, Ark.
"We were scared. Both Frank and I were worried and nervous. It's your baby. Really when anything goes on with them, even a fever, it scares you," Sabrina said.
The got in to see Baltz and he prescribed Taylor steroids starting with a low dose.
"The average platelets are 150,000 to 500,000. We found out her numbers were at 39,000 and eventually got as low as 26,000," Sabrina said.
Because her platelet count was so low, off-season basketball was out. Taylor, frustrated, watched from the sidelines as her teammates practiced and prepared for the upcoming season. She wanted to be out there with them, but she was only cleared to shoot and wasn't allowed to do anything with contact. A contusion or fall could result in internal bleeding.
"Sitting out of offseason was awful. I was out of shape because I hadn't got to practice. It was hard," Taylor said.
The dose of steroids was gradually increased until Taylor's numbers went up but the symptoms of the treatment were worse than the ITP for her. She gained 20 pounds in month's time and her face was puffy.
By mid-to-late October she'd been cleared to play basketball but the steroids caused numbness and painful burning in her feet.
She was playing great basketball. The Fouke Lady Panthers were tallying up wins but Taylor, a key cog on the team, wasn't able to play near as much as she had the year before.
"Her illness affected her," said Coach Mo Williams. "She played nearly half the minutes she played a year ago and still put up unbelievable numbers. I think if she could play 26 to 28 minutes a game nobody in the state would come close to her in offensive production. She's that special of a player. But Taylor does know without having great teammates beside her she would struggle."
Baltz wanted the family to see someone else and had recommended another specialist, Dr. Peter Emanuel, also a hematology/oncology physician in Little Rock. Emanuel upped the dose of steroids and the results were good for awhile.
With treatment, her platelet count rose to 177,000 and on Dec. 27 she was able to stop taking the medication but at a check-up three weeks later the family received bad news. Her count had fallen to 109,000, outside of normal range.
"That's when plan B came into effect," her mom said.
That plan involved an IV infusion drug called Rituxan, a medication used to treat certain autoimmune diseases and types of cancer.
"To make that decision for the chemo and to be responsible for that decision was tough, very tough for us both," Frank said. "You're making that decision for somebody else you're responsible for. We were assured everything would be fine, but when you hear the word 'chemo' it brings so many bad thoughts to your mind. You associate it with cancer and somebody being very sick. In our minds, we knew she was sick but we couldn't see it. It was a tough decision but you were making it for somebody else, somebody that held a big part of your heart."
The Rituxan infusions took place in the middle of conference play. Every Wednesday for four weeks Taylor and her parents traveled to Little Rock for the infusions, sometimes leaving late on a Tuesday night after a game to make the 2 1/2 hour drive.
"The infusions took place smack-dab in the middle of conference. It kind of sucked," said Taylor. "I'd have to go to Little Rock instead of riding the bus home with the team."
The side effects weren't as bad as they had been with the steroids. The burning feet were replaced by fatigue.
"I got tired during games but they told me to watch out for nausea and throwing up but I never had any of that," she said.
Taylor never wanted people to treat her differently or see her as sick.
"I don't like being sick or someone thinking I'm weaker. Even when I was getting treatment I wouldn't lean back or take a blanket. I guess I wanted to show people this isn't keeping me down. I'm still the same Taylor," she said.
Despite Taylor's hardship and a year riddled with hurdles for the Lady Panthers including injuries, family illness and more, the Panthers were Class 3A district runner up, regional champs and made it to the elite eight at the state tournament. Taylor did score her 1000th point and finished the year with 1,047 total career points. She's made 200 career 3-pointers and was named All Conference, All Region, All State and to the All State Tournament Team to mention a few accolades.
"Taylor definitely has been an inspiration to me because of everything she has gone through. The fact that she can shoulder all that has happened to her and still be one of the top players in the state is unbelievable," Williams said.
Taylor said all of the hardships, not just hers but those of her teammates, created a special bond between them all.
"I think it made us closer, especially this year with everything that went on with the team. I think it brought us together. We had the best team chemistry of any team," she said.
Williams agreed that they are a special group of young ladies.
"Our team led the entire State in 3-point makes this season, making 285. That's all classifications 1A-6A. We have great players on our girls team. They are unselfish and honestly outwork anybody in the area. They win because of their effort, unselfishness, their dedication to each other, as well as the program. And they give all the glory to God. They are the most remarkable young ladies I've ever seen," he said.
Taylor goes back to the doctor for a check-up in early April but she and her parents are hopeful that she has this condition beat now. Her numbers are in normal range and the prognosis is good.
"They are finding that Rituxan is being very successful in treating autoimmune diseases. It has a 70 to 80 percent success rate," Sabrina said.
It wasn't an easy year or basketball season, but Taylor learned a valuable lesson.
"It taught me that trusting in God helps everything. In the beginning I was mad, asking, 'Why is this happening to me.' Then I got over it. There are people in way worse situations that I am," Taylor said.
Her tenacity and determination made an impression on the people closest to her.
"Taylor is absolutely the strongest person I've known in my life. She is my hero," Frank said. "The good Lord has blessed my life to let her be a part of it. That's my Taylor. She's a remarkable individual. I'm the lucky one."