Perhaps the world’s cruelest trick is hiding horror in the mundane.
There was the day last year, Feb. 11, when the Bigfork girls basketball team beat Thompson Falls on the road in a nondescript regular season finale.
Or the day a few weeks earlier when a doctor diagnosed Valkyries sophomore Rakiah Grende with a treatable hernia, one that could be easily operated on after the season ended.
Or the day a little while after that when a doctor diagnosed Grende with acid reflux, possibly, he posited, as a result of her anxiety about the hernia operation.
Or the day after that game in Thompson Falls, when Bigfork assistant coach Jason Grende brought his daughter to an urgent-care facility for another in a series of now-tedious doctor visits.
That day, he would recall later, was “the worst day of my life.”
Jami Grende is the head coach of the Bigfork Valkyries, now in her fourth season, and is in command this winter of arguably the best team she’s ever had.
Through Jan. 20, the Vals are 10-1. They are deep and talented, with a handful of seniors leading the way and the ability to swap out all five starters without losing much on the court.
Rakiah, now a junior, is one of Bigfork’s best players. She is a starter and versatile weapon who her coach/mother said could comfortably play all five positions. She’s a gifted shooter, selfless passer and levelheaded teammate.
But last season was a different story.
Bigfork had struggled to live up to its own lofty standard, and going into the last regular season game, the one at Thompson Falls, Rakiah had lost her spot in the starting lineup. When she did get into the game, she almost immediately asked to be subbed out. Her mother said she had turned green.
“So we get home and the next morning she comes down and says, ‘I don’t feel good,’ and now I’m an emotional wreck because I know there’s something not right and I don’t know what to do,” Jami said. “I have taken her to doctor after doctor and they’re saying, ‘This is fine.’
“So Jason took her — it was a Sunday — took her to urgent care, and she never came home.”
At the urgent-care facility, Jason demanded a blood test, and when the results came back, the doctor sent father and daughter to the emergency room for a CT scan.
“I just remember we sat and waited, her and I, in the little room after the CT scan, and it took them a while,” Jason said. “I think they were probably talking about how to break it to us.”
The doctor took Jason aside and told him they had found a mass inside his daughter’s abdomen.
“It just felt like the world was coming to an end,” Jason said.
The news at first was dire. Not only had doctors found a large mass, they had found dozens of smaller masses floating inside the 16-year-old. Another doctor grabbed Jason and was brutally candid.
“At that time, they felt it was spreading, malignant,” Jason remembered. “He said, ‘The outcome, based on what I’m seeing here, is not good for your daughter.’”
Jason called his wife, who came to the hospital and joined Rakiah in a room. Jason, tears in his eyes, told the pair that Rakiah had cancer. Jami’s legs went limp. She collapsed to the floor.
“As a mother, it’s the worst nightmare,” Jami said. “You would literally wake up from a deep sleep and think, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m not dreaming — this is really happening.’”
Rakiah had a teratoma (a term loosely rooted in the Greek words for “monster tumor”) attached to her right ovary. The next several weeks were a series of medical flights, changing treatment plans and even more health scares. Doctors discovered three life-threatening blood clots in Rakiah, including one in her lungs, and sent her to a hospital in Denver. There, she began grueling chemotherapy treatments and injected herself with blood thinners to clear the clots before eventually getting the mixed news that her clots had cleared but the teratoma had grown, not shrunk, despite the chemo.
The new plan was for doctors to go in and remove the tumor surgically, and after nine days of waiting, Rakiah went to the operating room in Denver on March 23, more than five weeks after her initial diagnosis. By that time, her swollen midsection had grown by 96 centimeters, making her look, Jami said, “nine months pregnant.”
“It was five hours, and it was very intense, very invasive,” Jami said of the surgery. “And during the surgery, they removed four to five liters of fluid (weighing about eight pounds) along with a 12-pound tumor.”
Several of the smaller tumors that doctors had seen on earlier CT scans were also removed, and tests would later reveal that instead of a malignant cancer spreading through Rakiah’s abdomen, as had initially been feared, the original teratoma had burst, spilling smaller bits of tumor all around it. Tests on all of those tumors, including the 12-pound teratoma, came back benign except for a single malignant cell.
The Grendes all say that the reason the teratoma developed is still a mystery, but every test performed since the operation, including one in late December, shows no sign whatsoever of any cancer inside Rakiah’s body.
It was the first bit of good news during the family’s months-long nightmare.
“There was a small window there where I wasn’t 100 percent sure, based on what the doctors were saying, that I’d wake up in the morning and my daughter would be in the house,” Jason said. “So I take every day as we’re lucky. We’re thankful it turned out the way it did.”
On April 20, members of the Bigfork girls basketball team gathered at the adjacent middle school for the team’s end-of-the-year banquet. The team’s season had ended a month earlier under the guidance of assistant Cortnee Gunlock, who took over when all three Grendes immediately left the team in the wake of Rakiah’s diagnosis.
Bigfork Activities Director Dave Creamer was in the crowd that day when Rakiah Grende, 30 pounds lighter, bald from the chemotherapy and less than a month out of surgery, surprised everyone and walked through the door.
“It wasn’t like people started sniffling,” Creamer said. “There was this audible sob by about 60 or 70 people, kids and adults, when they saw her come in … They just spent 10 minutes hugging each other.”
Rakiah’s road back to recovery was incredibly grueling, but she tackled it with a tenacity that didn’t surprise her parents.
“She’ll accept any challenge, whether it’s on the basketball court of if it’s cancer,” Jami said. “She’s a fighter.”
“It was tough to see someone as strong as she is for her age, mentally and physically, go through something like that,” Jason said. “But the doctors all said the same thing — it was a good thing she was in great shape and she’s strong mentally. She was able to handle everything that she went through.”
Rakiah says her return to full health came, fittingly, on the basketball court in Bigfork’s annual Battle in the Bay 3-on-3 tournament last July. She’s since come back to the Bigfork High School team and, in the Vals’ biggest game to date, was at her best, scoring 10 of Bigfork’s 11 points in overtime to help her team beat previously undefeated Florence 67-59 on Jan. 12.
And that’s to say nothing of the off-the-court boost the return of all three Grendes has given the team.
“They’re like part of our family,” senior Shae Anderson said. “It was really sad to see something like that happen to a teammate, but it pushed us to succeed and come together as a team and want to just keep going, not give up when that happens.”
The Vals have vanquished all of their District 7B opponents so far this season, including teams that rallied around Rakiah and her family a year ago. At last year’s District 7B tournament shortly after Rakiah’s diagnosis, players from other teams tagged themselves with RG23, Grende’s initials and uniform number, and spread the hashtag on social media. Care packages poured in from around the country, too, including from the Gonzaga men’s basketball team, Montana State University women’s team and countless local high schools.
As for competing again this year, while many of her teammates are thinking about the state tournament and a state championship, not an unrealistic goal for this Valkyries team, Rakiah’s goals are much smaller after going through an ordeal that she said made her “grow up pretty fast.”
“I just want to finish a season; that would be really nice,” Rakiah said. “Now I don’t have anything to worry about — nothing’s in the back of my mind — so I just want to play.”