Rhianna in the race for a cure
Former swimmer dedicates life to fighting crippling condition
AT the age of 12, Rhianna Lovegrove had the world in her hands.
Years of 4am starts for training were beginning to pay off for the talented swimmer, who had won a series of state titles and was already setting her sights on the Olympics.
Then she got sick – and no one could tell her what was wrong.
“I started feeling really ill, super-fatigued, and couldn’t keep up with training when I was usually front of the line,” she said.
What followed was months of visits to different doctors, a stay at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, and a barrage of procedures and blood tests.
None of it helped – Rhianna continued to feel dizzy, tired, short of breath, and unable to sit upright without feeling ill.
A breakthrough only came when, as a 14-year-old, the plucky Tasmanian took it upon herself to email a doctor in the United States, seeking answers.
As specialists finally closed in on a diagnosis, Rhianna underwent a tilt table test, in which the patient is strapped to a table and tilted to see how they handle grav- ity and how pressure reacts.
Most people can stay on the table for about 45 minutes. Rhianna passed out immediately and for a split second, her heart stopped.
Finally, she was diagnosed with the little-known postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, or POTS, bringing her promising swimming career to a sudden end. Now aged 20, Rhianna has used the setback to fuel fresh ambitions – she’s studying a bachelor of psychological science at Gold Coast’s Bond University, and hopes to use her experience to help others with similar health problems to her own.
“From my experience with my own health ailment … I want to work in a hospital their blood one day as part of a multidisciplinary team, as a psychologist looking after people with chronic illnesses, with disorders and stuff like that.”
Rhianna said POTS was more common than most people realised, despite not being well known.
“It’s actually very prevalent, especially in America, but not many people know about it. Essentially, they don’t really know what causes it, but it’s primarily occurring in girls and it’s this idea that the blood pressure is lowered, and the heart rate goes up really high when you stand or sit up, there’s an array of symptoms that come along with it, and it’s horrible, but I guess I have to live with that every day.”
For Rhianna, living with it means being stringent with managing her time and having to regularly lie down for rests. She’s gone from training nine times a week to being unable to run, instead resorting to exercises while sitting down.
“There’s been times when I’ve cried … and the hardest bit has been seeing everyone else be fine, and it’s not that you’d ever wish anything bad on anyone else, but it’s just like why me?
“It is tough, and it has been tough, especially when I was first diagnosed, because being 12 years old and having your dreams ripped away from you is pretty tough. But it could be worse, and there are people that have it worse off, it’s the best way to think of it because you can’t change it … maybe one day.”