Kroner: SJ-O's Immke overcomes illness with positive outlook
ST. JOSEPH — Abby Immke's name is prominent on the list of top contributors to St. Joseph-Ogden's top-ranked and unbeaten Class 2A softball team.
She drove in seven runs against Centennial, had three RBI against a 20-win Paxton-Buckley-Loda team, hit a grand slam against a 20-win Monticello team and also slugged a home run against Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley's 20-win team.
She is a senior, at a time in her teenaged life where athletes expect to be at the top of their games and excelling like never before.
Immke's performance has been consistently good even though her off-the-field struggles have reached a peak. Within days of the Spartans' season ending, she will undergo another surgery.
Her sophomore year at SJ-O, Immke was diagnosed with Cushing's Syndrome. She underwent an operation as well as radiation treatments and, by spring, was in the lineup for softball even though she was far from cured.
Her junior year, she earned All-Area accolades as a first baseman. Immke followed that by working out with a personal trainer — Mahomet's Chet Crowley — and was anticipating the kind of final season she had always envisioned for herself.
"I was excited about my final year," Immke said. "After my junior season, and knowing I was able to compete at a fairly high level, I felt I would be able to build on that momentum."
She never saw what was coming.
Early in the season, she experienced vision problems, "seeing some spots with my left eye," she said.
Tests in St. Louis — where she still is being treated for the Cushing's — determined she had a condition known as Pseudotumor Cerebri and prompted an emergency spinal tap to drain fluid.
"It does seem like it is one thing after another," Immke said, "and it does wear on you. I just wish I could be a normal kid and softball player, but that isn't the path that has been chosen for me."
The fluid was drained, and Immke was told "they were going to measure how much fluid I had by the pressure reading on this thing that looked like a rain gauge coming out of my back."
The liquid overflowed from the top of the container.
For a person who has endured so much, the frustration seemed too much to bear.
"I have bad days where it feels like it will never end, but I wake up the next morning and realize that everything will be OK," Immke said. "You have to trust in God and put your faith in his hands.
"My dad says we'll be better people in the long run for going through this part of our lives."
The morning after the spinal tap was a Saturday. SJ-O had a softball doubleheader against Cumberland. Immke insisted on being in the lineup for Game 1.
"It was awful," she said. "I just went through the motions. I got the worst headaches I have ever had in my life and had to lie down outside the dugout. The pain was unbearable."
Her mom, Sadie, took her home, and she stayed in bed for three days, but even then, Abby Immke said, "I never thought the season might be over for me."
Immke missed two complete games. When she returned, she was still productive, carrying a .454 batting average into the sectional, ranking third on the team in RBI (41) and continuing to excel defensively, with two errors in 145 chances.
"She has done a tremendous job," SJ-O coach Randy Wolken said. "Obviously, if not for this (illness), her numbers would be astronomical, out of sight.
"She can't do everything she used to do, but she works 10 times harder to get to the level she is at when probably 90 percent would have given up. She takes a lot of pride in it."
Her teammates are well aware of Immke's battles and, Wolken said, "have 100 percent respect for her and how she treats practice."
Crowley is a former state champion wrestler at Mahomet-Seymour. The 1996 high school graduate works in the family painting business during the day and is a personal trainer at night. In July, he will open a 3,200-square-foot facility in the Eastwood Center.
Crowley has worked with athletes who went on to win state championships, but one of his prized pupils is Immke.
"She came in and stole my heart," Crowley said. "I knew her (medical) situation and that she wanted to get in shape. She had lots of work ahead of her."
When Crowley did his first 20-minute assessment, he said, "she barely made it through the workout."
The challenge was more than to develop a beneficial program. The medication Immke was taking to control the Cushing's and boost her immune system also promoted weight gain.
"The doctor said it was OK to push her and we were confident we'd work hard at it, but no one could say this (weight loss) was really going to happen," Crowley said.
Immke was a willing participant, going through two-hour workouts up to four days a week. Starting last June, she showed steady progress before a change in the level of her medications saw a temporary increase in weight.
"Trying to keep Abby confident was more difficult," Crowley said. "It would have been easy for her to give up. She never quit."
By the time she stopped working with Crowley to concentrate on her senior year in softball, she had shed about 50 pounds and gained strength.
"We've had kids who've won state titles," Crowley said, "but hers is more of a life-changing story. It was a good story from start to finish. So uplifting.
"She lost a lot of weight, but the biggest thing was she got more confidence. You could see it in the way she carried herself. She has an amazing work ethic."
Immke went from the person who had difficulty with her 20-minute assessment to one Crowley said "by the end of her offseason stood out as one of the top three (out of 25 or 30, mostly boys). She produced the most stamina and endurance. It was amazing to watch her transform. It touched my heart."
The feelings are mutual. Immke plans to train with Crowley again this summer.
"I knew Chet would push me to my limit and prepare me for my final high school season," Immke said. "I would recommend Chet to anyone wanting to get to the next level. He is amazing."
Because of her condition, Abby Immke wanted to pick a college based on proximity to her home in rural St. Joseph. She selected Parkland after also considering Danville Area Community College.
"We are a very close family," she said. "I knew I wanted to stay at home to help out with my two younger siblings."
The future, she said, is "kind of scary." But it also is filled with promise that she hasn't felt in more than three years.
On June 7, she will undergo a double laparoscopic adrenalectomy. Both of her adrenal glands will be removed in the procedure at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis.
The St. Louis area is one Immke knows well. She has undergone two tumor operations and a gamma knife treatment, which is high-dose radiation, during the more than two dozen trips the family has made to Barnes.
The next surgery, she believes, is the step that will lead to ridding herself of Cushing's.
"The adrenals are what is being told by the pituitary and small pockets of tumor cells to produce the cortisol," Immke said. "The elevated levels of cortisol are why I have Cushing's Syndrome."
Immke had a recent change in her medication in an effort to boost her energy. The practices and the games haven't come easily.
"Knowing another surgery is coming up in June, it is very hard to concentrate and have softball be first and foremost on my mind," Immke said.
Wolken said one point that stands out about his first baseman is "I've never once heard her complain."
Though she may not have verbalized them, Immke has the feelings all the same.
"Most people don't have any idea how different it has been playing now with the Cushing's versus playing before when I was disease-free," she said. "I have a clear memory of what I was like before I had Cushing's, and the level I'm at now isn't close.
"I don't feel I've played that well during high school. It is disappointing, but it is something I've had to deal with for almost four years now. The challenge of competing has kept me going."
Knowing she might one day return to the player she was pre-Cushing's, Immke said, is "pretty exciting to be this close."
Despite what she considers a subpar prep career by her standards, coaches and spectators have marveled at the fluidity of her swing, a swing that has been unaffected by her personal battles.
"A lot of left-handers have beautiful swings," Wolken said, "but hers is one of the best. It is a special swing, no jerking. Her dad (Greg) deserves a lot of credit."
Abby Immke has heard the praise so frequently that "I felt a little embarrassed."
The swing has been perfected by countless repetition in the heated family shed, which includes a batting cage.
"I have worked with my dad as my hitting coach as long as I can remember, and swinging the bat has always come naturally for me," Abby Immke said. "I trust him 100 percent on hitting. He has worked with many athletes, and several are playing in college."
If you hear Immke talk, you'll see a recurring theme. She is not the victim, the woe-is-me athlete whose performance has suffered because of a childhood disease.
She is the fortunate one.
"All you have to do is visit a children's hospital to realize how lucky you are to have your health and family," she said. "Even though I have had Cushing's, and it happened during my high school career, it is nothing in the whole scheme of things.
"There are kids who will never get to play softball or any sport. I am one of the lucky ones who gets to run, jump and play.
"Any time you feel down about how things are going, just visit a children's hospital and you will realize how lucky you really are."
That is why — as her coach at SJ-O observed — there have been no complaints. "She has had a bad hand dealt to her, but she is as good as gold," Wolken said.
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette's prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by phone at 217-351-5232, by fax at 217-373-7401 or at email@example.com. Follow him on twitter @fredkroner.