Mullinax, a former standout at Cherokee High School, was midway through her freshman season at Reinhardt. She has just settled into her role with the Lady Eagles. She solidified herself as the first or second player off the bench with her specialty being 3-pointers — connecting on 30 percent of her shots. She was also coming along defensively.
Reinhardt women’s basketball coach Lindsey Huffman, who was then in her first year with the program, said Mullinax was becoming a go-to player.
“She was becoming someone we could count on, particularly late in games,” Huffman said.
All of that was put on hold following a Jan. 16 win over Bryan College. Mullinax left campus after the game and was at her parents’ home in Holly Springs, when she told her mother that she was having trouble breathing. The two went to the hospital where Mullinax underwent several tests and was eventually diagnosed with congenital defect called a vascular ring, which involves an abnormal formation of the aorta and its surrounding blood vessels.
In Mullinax’s case, her esophagus and trachea were completely encircled by a ring formed by these blood vessels. The condition is rare — accounting for less than 1 percent of all congenital heart problems — but the situation was unique for Mullinax because of her age. The first symptom, including coughing, wheezing, and respiratory distress usually occur in the first few months of life.
Mullinax didn’t exhibit any of these symptoms until she was in college.
“Most of the time they find it in babies,” Mullinax said. “But mine decided to wait 18 years before I started having symptoms. I had never had asthma or anything which shocked the doctors. They thought that I would have had problems my entire life, but it just happened one time after that game.”
When Huffman found out about the condition, basketball certainly wasn’t the first thing on her mind.
“I was worried, and to be honest, basketball was the last thing on my mind at that point,” Huffman said. “After it was explained to me by her mom and all the doctors, I was really worried about her health. I’m naturally a worrywart, everyone tells me that all the time, but it’s especially true with my players.”
After the diagnosis, Mullinax was referred to specialists, who performed surgery on Feb. 14. It was the end of her basketball season, but Mullinax was encouraged because doctors told her it would never reoccur and she would be able to rejoin her team at Reinhardt.
However, that wasn’t quite the case. Mullinax began feeling symptoms again in August. After multiple visits with pediatricians who typically treat the ailment, she was still looking for an answer. She was referred to Emory, where a doctor told her that because the vascular ring had been there for so long, it left some permanent damage to her trachea.
“It left a dent,” Mullinax said. “They had to go back in October and they stretched the trachea. Now I’m good.”
The second surgery meant that Mullinax had to take more time away from basketball and wasn’t able to keep up with the conditioning that her teammates were undergoing prior to the season.
But Mullinax is a competitor. In fact that is her favorite part of playing basketball. She quickly began working back into shape. As she recovered from the first surgery, she was able to bike, but couldn’t run at all.
“The biggest thing was getting back into shape,” Mullinax said. “And through the whole process, just keeping my head up, especially the second time around when the doctors didn’t know what to do. It was hard not knowing whether or not I was going to get to play the game I love again or if I was going to be done.”
Once Mullinax underwent the second surgery and was cleared to return to practice, she had no reservations about getting back on the court. Neither did Huffman, who welcomed her back.
“My only apprehension was making sure that she didn’t try to come back to soon,” Huffman said. “I didn’t want her to push things for the sake of basketball. There is a lot more to life than basketball. Plus I didn’t want her to get down on herself when and if the doctors told her she could come back and start playing again.
“As far as her recovering and getting back into playing basketball, she is such as hard worker, tough-nosed-kids, I didn’t have any apprehensions about her coming back or even improving on the player that she already was. I had full confidence that she would return to being the basketball player that she was as long as her health wasn’t preventing it.”
Now that she is back with her team, Mullinax is perfecting her 3-pointer once again and logging more time in games. Her coach said the big difference will be seen in the next few weeks when the Mullinax is back at full strength.
“I just think that it will do a lot for her confidence and for our team and its confidence as well,” Huffman said. “She is a very integral part of our team. She is very humble and she will be the first to tell you that she has work to do and she is never satisfied. It will be a world of difference in her confidence when she can feel back to normal again. I think that you will see a very different Lauren Mullinax when that all kind of clicks.”
Mullinax is excited about putting the whole experience behind her. The sophomore scored a season-best eight points in the Lady Eagles win over Tennessee Temple on Dec. 16. The team will next play on Monday, when they host West Georgia Tech.
“I’ve never had something like this happen to me before,” Mullinax said. “Not that it’s all behind me, I’m just ready to hit the floor running and get out there and play. You don’t realized what you have until you can’t do it. Not being able to play basketball just showed me how much I loved the sport and how much I want to play.”