Maya Watkins had a lot of bruises, which isn’t entirely unexpected for a beach volleyball player.
But the bruises were becoming so numerous and so regular that several of her Boise State teammates and a coach pulled her aside to ask if everything was OK.
“She would bruise all the time, super easily, and in random places,” Boise State junior Kenna Hanses said. “I bruise easily, too, but it was to the point I was like, ‘Maya, what’s going on?’ ”
Busy navigating her first semester as a freshman student-athlete in fall 2017, the Snohomish, Washington, native hoped the problem eventually would solve itself. The bruises would fade and everything would be fine. But the bruises didn’t fade.
“I came home for Christmas break and that’s when I got my blood work done, just because it was concerning with how many bruises I had and how bad it was,” Watkins said. “It turns out my platelet count was super, super low.”
Platelets are tiny cells that circulate in the blood and help the body form clots to stop bleeding. A normal platelet count is from 150,000 to 450,000.
Watkins had a platelet count below 6,000.
“The hospital called us pretty late at night with the results and told us to go to the emergency room right away,” Watkins said. “They said, ‘If you have one bad fall, if you get in a car accident, one funky hit on something, you could internally bleed.’ ”
Watkins was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder called idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, or ITP, and had to spend the rest of Christmas break in the hospital.
Finding a treatment plan that worked for Watkins took a lot of trial and error, and doctors weren’t sure it was in her best interest to keep playing beach volleyball. Any hard impact potentially could trigger life-threatening internal bleeding.
“I wasn’t ready to give up my sport,” Watkins said.
Watkins started undergoing weekly blood tests at St. Luke’s in Boise to check her platelet count. If it was too low, she couldn’t participate in practices or games.
“Last year I was sitting out almost every other week,” Watkins said. “Then over the summer I was only able to play in one tournament. The rest of the summer my platelet count was too low.”
With none of the usual treatments for Watkins’ ITP taking hold, doctors suggested they test for bone marrow cancer.
“The worst day of my life, the worst day of my wife’s life, was that day,” said David Watkins, Maya’s father. “I can’t even begin to tell you how horrible it was. It was a big scare, and the bone marrow biopsies were not easy for Maya. They are extremely painful. And because her bones are so dense as a collegiate athlete, they couldn’t go deep enough punching through the hip, so they had to actually do it twice. It was brutal.”
Thankfully, the biopsy came back negative for cancer.
“She handled it all with grace,” Boise State beach volleyball coach Allison Buck said. “She had a great attitude about it and I can’t say enough about how much strength she’s shown.”
Watkins’ doctors since have settled on weekly injections of a prescription called Romiplostim — a bone marrow stimulant — and a low dose of a corticosteroid called Prednisone to keep her platelet counts in the normal range.
She hasn’t missed a match so far as a sophomore in the No. 5 spot with Hanses, and the Broncos are in the midst of the best season in program history with an overall record of 12-5. Boise State’s 53 pairs victories this season easily surpasses the previous school record of 28 set in 2016.
Boise State plays its only home matches of the season this week, beginning with an exhibition pairs tournament at 1 p.m. Tuesday at the Boise State Sand Volleyball Complex on the corner of Belmont Street and Oakland Avenue on campus. The Broncos then host Sacramento State (2 p.m.) and No. 13 Arizona (5 p.m.) in the Boise State Beach Classic on Friday.
“We can’t wait. We’ve been working all season for it, traveling and playing these competitive, awesome teams,” Watkins said. “This is our time to shine in front of friends and family and show what we’ve been working towards.”
Although Watkins’ ITP is currently under control, her medical journey is far from over. She’ll continue to go to the hospital twice a week every week for the foreseeable future for blood work and injections of Romiplostim. And she even stops by St. Luke’s when she doesn’t have to — just to volunteer on the pediatric floor in the playroom.
She wants to become a pediatric nurse, and recently received a community service award from the Mountain West.
“This is a kid that didn’t have a whole lot of direction on what she wanted to do after college and what she wanted to major in, but she’s taken this unfortunate situation and she’s created a positive out of it,” David Watkins said.
“… To me, strength isn’t defined really by how far you go before you break, it’s more defined by how far you take yourself after you’ve already been broken. That’s really been the motto that Maya has followed. It’s obviously something we’ve wanted to instill in her, but she’s teaching us that as well.”