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Heart of a Wildcat: Women’s basketball player overcomes adversity

Sophomore Whitney Branham attempts a free throw in a close game. Photo credit: Jacob Auby

Two spinal surgeries, one foot surgery and having a birthday every four years sounds like the beginning to a sad story. For women’s basketball player, sophomore Whitney Branham, these life events have only made her stronger and proven that she can accomplish anything she puts her mind to.

Branham faced adversity early and often as she fought and defeated spina bifida.

“I was 1 when my parents found out I had spina bifida and that my spinal cord was tethered and they needed to release it, or I could end up with nerve damage and possibly become paralyzed,” Branham said.

Sophomore Whitney Branham celebrates making the basket after getting fouled. Photo credit: Jacob Auby

After having surgery to release her spinal cord, Branham suffered some nerve damage to her left foot.

“I can’t feel my foot and I can’t move my toes, even today, so I will get stepped on and not even know it,” Branham said.

Branham’s left foot is also a size and a half smaller than her right foot, which makes it hard to find shoes.

“The owner of Nordstrom’s wife had polio so she had the same problem with her feet being two different sizes, so they will split a size and a half for free, and that helps out a lot,” Branham said.

Spina bifida is a birth defect where there is an incomplete closing of the backbone and membranes around the spinal cord.

Branham was lucky that the doctors found it early, but one surgery was not enough. In first grade they found that her spinal cord had re-tethered so they were going to have to go back and release it again.

The second surgery was successful and Branham has not had any problems since. She was watched very closely when going through puberty because that’s when kids grow a lot and her spinal cord was extending.

Sophomore Whitney Branham looks for an open teammate in a game against Cal State Stanislaus. Photo credit: Jacob Auby

In fifth grade Branham had surgery to fix her foot and extend her toes out to help adjust the different foot sizes.

“That surgery didn’t really help much because my one foot is still a size and a half smaller,” Branham said. “They shaved some of the bone and they put a rod through my big toe to kind of straighten it out.”

Not having any feeling in her foot has been tough because there are times when Branham would hurt herself and not even know it.

In sixth grade she played a whole tournament with a broken toe.

“It was in the upper part of my foot so I can kinda feel a little bit but my toes have no feeling whatsoever, and the break spread to the upper part of my foot and it was really swollen,” Branham said.

Sophomore Whitney Branham dribbles past her opponent. Photo credit: Jacob Auby

Even today Branham struggles with everyday things such as running and foot work drills, which in basketball you do a lot. She doesn’t use it as an excuse, but rather motivation.

“Going through all of this definitely established that foundation for me of never giving up and never letting someone say you can’t do that,” Branham said. “I mean I’m practically on one foot and I’m out here playing basketball at the collegiate level, so it shows if you put your mind to it and put the work in you can accomplish anything you want.”

Another obstacle that Branham grew up with is having a birthday every four years because she was born on Feb. 29.

“I will be turning 20, but technically this will only be my fifth actual birthday so in a way I’m only 5,” Branham said. “I get really excited for my actual birthday because it doesn’t happen that often.”

Sophomore Whitney Branham is helped up by her teammates after scoring a 3-point play. Photo credit: Jacob Auby

Through everything Branham has and has yet to overcome, whether it is in sports or life, she uses her scar as a reminder of how fortunate she is and to not take anything in life for granted.

“My struggle that I’ve been through is what makes other things in life easier,” Branham said. “If I can get through two spinal surgeries, a foot surgery and have one foot that’s barely working and do the things I am doing, then the limits are boundless.”

Jason Spies can be reached at [email protected] or @Jason_Spies on Twitter.

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