Three years ago, LaToya Randle was on the verge of a career for which she had planned, dreamed and worked.
Randle had resigned after four seasons as the Southeast girls coach to join the Butler Community College women’s staff. Basketball was her calling, and she passionately wanted to coach in college.
But with her dream about to be realized, it derailed dramatically and quickly. Life didn’t simply present Randle with bumps, but with a full-blown maze of obstacles surrounding the health of her son, Julian.
“I was so broken,” said Randle, who is in her first season back coaching the Southeast girls. “I finally had my shot, and I felt it was ripped away from me, and not by anything but life itself.”
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After several weeks working with the Butler staff before the 2011-12 season, Randle quit to stay home with her son, Julian, who was battling juvenile dermatomyositis. It’s a rare auto-immune disease with no known cure, and it went undiagnosed until September 2012.
In addition, her husband, Melvin, was laid off after 13 years at Hawker Beechcraft.
“… For a whole year, if you talked to me, I would start crying. It took time to get the strength to talk about it and be brave about it and courageous. I want our family to reflect Julian,” said Randle, who played basketball at East High and Wichita State. “Julian has always been confident, courageous and brave about his disease.”
The disease has racked Julian’s body.
Now 8 with a wide, contagious smile, the naturally exuberant Julian is healthier. But he’s not cured.
Juvenile dermatomyositis affects three children in 1 million, attacking healthy muscles and connective tissues.
It has caused him severe pain. He couldn’t sit on his classroom floor with his legs crossed because of severe pain. He often fell because of his weakened muscles.
“We kept sending him to school because we didn’t know what was going on,” said Randle, who chose to homeschool Julian when the pain increased.
His skin itched and burned, often causing him to scream in agony. Papules, round bumps, flared up on his fingers, knees and elbows. He had to use a wheelchair, and his neck muscles were so depleted he couldn’t hold his head up.
Through it all, Randle relied heavily on her mom, Connie Bailey.
“She never showed her weakness,” Bailey said. “Maybe to me and her husband, but she always appeared to be very strong. I tell her that I admire her for that. I see her, I watched her grow into the mother that I knew I wanted her to be.”
They visited pediatricians, orthopedists, dermatologists and dentists. Muscular dystrophy was considered after a high creatine phosphokinase test. A normal count is 10-120 micrograms per liter; Julian’s was near 20,000.
When the correct diagnosis was made, Julian had nine of the 10 symptoms of juvenile dermatomyositis, but it still brought a measure of relief.
Now there was something to fight, something to learn about. Now there was a plan.
The journey was far from finished, and the Randles know Julian may never be completely healthy.
There have been countless treatments, usually at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., because there isn’t a certified Wichita doctor to treat Julian. By January 2013, four months after the diagnosis, he didn’t need a wheelchair.
In December 2013, the family was given a trip to Disney World by Make-A-Wish. A month later, though, Randle experienced another blow when her sister, Arlagra, died at 30 after contracting the H1N1 virus.
“She was my best friend. That’s what really, really woke me up,” Randle said. “… If I had not been an athlete or had the lessons I learned from my coaches, I don’t know how I would have made it through.
“You have faith, but basketball teaches you and sports teaches you how to overcome right away. You have no choice, especially if you want to be a success at it.”
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Julian’s classmates know he’s sick.
“I used to be (known as) the good kid,” Julian said. “Now I’m the medicine kid.”
Julian has injections at home, but every six weeks he has IV chemotherapy treatments in Kansas City.
He’s due for a treatment at the end of December, and there are signs his energy is waning.
“Just this morning he was having a hard time putting on his belt,” Melvin Randle said. “There’s a dozen little things we take for granted, that we do without thinking.”
Julian’s chemo treatments are designed to replace his immune system.
“His immune system attacks his body,” LaToya Randle said. “What they take out of people’s blood, the good parts of it, then they give it to Julian to give him a healthier immune system.”
The goal is to replace the IV chemo with oral medication, but he’s been doing the treatments for two years and the disease has not gone into remission.
Julian cannot go outside if it’s warmer than 85 degrees, and on Tuesday he hung out in his school’s office with a friend during recess because at less than 50 degrees, it was too cold.
Yet Julian worries about his mom and has told her he will take care of her if she ever gets sick.
“He’s a very tough kid,” LaToya Randle said.
“He’s just been like a bright light in our family,” her mother said.
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When LaToya and Melvin agreed it was time for her to return to coaching, several things needed to fall into place.
Melvin got moved to third shift at Spirit Aerosystems, which allows him to be home with the boys in the evening and get to all of Jaylen’s basketball games at Mead Middle School. LaToya works as a substitute at Southeast.
Southeast athletic director Mark Lamb was excited to have her back as a coach, and has insisted she return to being a track assistant, as well.
“She cares about those kids and she teaches them so much more than basketball,” he said.
And while the Buffaloes are 1-3, the Randles are in a good place.
“Her gift to give is what she gives those kids (at Southeast),” Bailey said. “She needs to do that. She’s now feeling safe enough that she knows he’s OK.”
And basketball is a vital part of the Randle family’s life.
“Basketball is our outlet,” said Melvin, who was part of three state championships at Wichita South and played at Cowley College. “It gives us a chance to take our mind off Julian’s … just his everyday life. We look forward to the hecticness of it. I get Julian from school at 4:10, Jaylen’s out of basketball at 5, LaToya’s games start at 6.”
Julian’s one love is basketball, which he can’t play anymore.
He goes to Southeast practices when he can, and will jump in to defend a player. He can’t go all out because he gets worn down, but every moment is a joy.
He knows the game, so he’s quick to point out the flaws in his brother’s game. Jaylen is 5-foot-10 and can already dunk, Julian proudly proclaims. But Jaylen needs to be quicker and he just cannot allow a guy to get out there and shoot an uncontested three.
And Julian’s own future? It’s all basketball.
“My dream is my mom’s dream, too,” he said. “I want to play basketball and coach.”