Softball players are notoriously tough… that we know!
But the story of Ryenne Elbert-Walker, a 16-year-old infielder/pitcher from Wentzville, Missouri, who has been through 29 eye surgeries in nine years, is one for the ages.
Born with congenital glaucoma, she was having worsening eye problems as a child that led to 32 doctor and hospital visits over the course of two years but she was able to persevere through her love of softball.
Ryenne kicks off her junior softball season at Liberty (Missouri) High with her first game on Saturday as a school record-setting pitcher/infielder. She has also played travel ball for the Louisville Sluggers organization and, since she’s aged out of the ‘04’s will be looking for a new team this fall and winter.
Now in her eighth year of playing softball, her accomplishments in sports—she’s also an excellent golfer!—are inspiring!
Here is her story as told by her mother, Dana Walker-Meyer, with some comments added from the athlete herself…
My daughter, Ryenne Elbert-Walker, has a story that’s hard to believe.
When she was born, from Day 1, I knew something was wrong. She was so sick, beyond colicky and no one would listen. I had her in the ER the same night I brought her home from the hospital because she was profusely vomiting.
For the next two years, I had her at every doctor I could think of. There were 32 doctor visits and at least 8-10 specialists that I can remember, over those 24 months.
The diagnoses ranged from reflux, aspiration pneumonia, upper and lower GI testing, allergy testing, special formula, nothing is wrong, airway the “size of a juice box straw”, sleep apnea, tonsils out, hemangioma surgical removed by a hand specialist because of the size of the growth and blood vessels causing it to grow.
You name it, it was tried, and it failed.
We limped along and struggled with Ryenne having severe social anxiety, lack of communication, poor sleeping, and eating. I am sure I was viewed as “that crazy mom” but we were really struggling.
The only thing that helped was getting her tonsils out so she could breathe and stay asleep. I was single with a 10-year-old when Ryenne was born, and I got laid off the day I came back from maternity leave, but I do not quit on my kids. We just kept swimming…so to speak.
Fast forward to shortly after the New Year in January of 2009, I noticed one of Ryenne’s eyes start to turn outward—always when she was tired, and more so as a night went on, but gone in the morning.
By the end of February, it was increasing to all hours of the day. I scheduled an appointment with the Walmart eye doctor, Michael Bauer. He began a normal exam, and then stopped, and said he thought something was “really wrong” and he would be right back.
When he came back, he had a huge diagnostic book and flipped pages as fast as he could, until he landed where he wanted and began to read to himself. He looked at me and said, “I think she has glaucoma. Her corneas are shattered like a windshield.”
I remember thinking, “How in the world does a 5-year-old get glaucoma? That’s for the elderly!”
Oh, how wrong I was…. that eye doctor visit sent our lives on a path we could never imagine.
We were sent to an eye doctor at our local hospital and he diagnosed her with congenital glaucoma. Funny thing is, we went to this doctor when Ryenne was 5-months-old because she started having strabismus (when the eyes aren’t lined up properly and point in different directions).
Little babies often have googly eyes when they are born until their eye muscles get strong enough to control their movement. Ryenne never had that eye control, so as part of the 32 doctor visits, one of them was to this eye specialist to see why she started having strabismus at 5-months old.
The doctor did a quick check of her and said she’d outgrow it and in the next 6 weeks she did; however, he did not catch the glaucoma!
A new specialist, Dr. Gregg Lueder at Children’s Hospital treated Ryenne from ages 5-to-15. During that time, Ryenne had 27 eye surgeries with only a total of two years without one so, in total, 27 surgeries in 8 years.
Ryenne says she tries to not dwell on the fear of the procedures.
“I don’t remember a lot about the surgeries,” she admits, "only that I don’t like them.”
By the time Ryenne was 15, we had been to Wills Eye Institute in Philly to get second opinions several times by a world-class surgeon there, Dr. Alex Levin. He is into genetics and we did some testing and found out that both Ryenne’s father and I carry a recessive gene that causes congenital glaucoma… the perfect storm.
Dr. Levin also confirmed her treatment path here in St. Louis and we proceeded with two valves in her left eye and numerous other types of surgeries, but, as her case is complicated, we were running out of options.
I still cannot figure this out, but when I look back over the years, I almost don’t even remember most of her childhood except for the one thing that kept her going the whole time, the thing that stands out the most—more than the surgeries, more than the all the doctors and bills and time spent in their offices and hospitals: softball.
Ryenne was incredibly shy and socially avoidant, but lives in a family of outgoing, opinionated and sometimes loud women! Shy is so unfamiliar to us that I treated it like a disease to overcome. I don’t know why I could not imagine having a shy child and oftentimes I wonder what would have happened if I had not been so ignorant, but God made this child for me to raise and I did the best I knew how.
At age 4, I enrolled Ryenne in gymnastics with her older sister. Every week she would cry and I would have to make her stay and walk away to watch her. I was determined to give my daughter something to focus on besides fear while helping her build confidence in herself.
When she was invited to join the competitive team three months later, I knew she would never get up in front of a crowd to perform alone. We switched over to competitive cheerleading so she would at least have a group to be with while competing. That lasted less than a year because her surgeries started and we just couldn’t keep her in.
Every summer she would beg me to let her play softball. Every summer I said, “No way!”
My older daughter, Aleigha, picked dandelions at ages 5-6 playing T-ball and I did not want to go through that again. The third summer I agreed to one season of rec ball because it’s only eight games and thought, “How bad can it be?”
Ryenne played two seasons of rec ball and, this time, cried each time it ended, not started! Not only did she love it, but she really excelled for her age.
“Playing ball makes me happy and it’s where all my friends are, the athlete says.”
I knew nothing about select softball, so I put my research skills to work and she made the first select team she tried out for, the St. Louis Prospects.
The more she played, the better she got and the more she loved it. We let her drive the car, so to speak. We have always known she does not see well. The frank reality we feared was there a potential she could go blind .
We started a bucket list of places to travel and see, like oceans, mountains, East Coast, West Coast, NYC, Los Angeles… wherever we could financially get to. It was always in the back of our minds that someday would be the “last time” and we wanted her to have points of reference.
At 11-12, Ryenne was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). It explained so much: the shyness, the lack of verbal communication, the fear, lack of eye contact, etc.
I did not know, but I had just kept requiring her to do more like ordering her own food from the waitress at age 5, going to four or five tryouts every season whether she needed to or not, getting used to performing for herself in front of coaches, changing teams to force her to make new friends, interacting with new coaches and so on.
I know on the outside it looked like we couldn’t keep a team, but you must know we had a bigger agenda: getting her as far as we could, as fast as possible and for her to learn how to adapt, be flexible, cope, survive, learn that she will be OK no matter how scary it feels and learn to make friends and communicate with coaches for herself.
We would have Ryenne sign herself up at the check in table and speak to adults looking them in the eye—we had to practice how to do that over and over. We just had to keep pushing her so she could learn that if she went blind, she would do more than survive. She could thrive and be full of life and not fear.
Ryenne is an amazing kid. She has a stellar work ethic, is so motivated and wants to please and has had some really great relationships with her team, hitting and pitching coaches over the years.
Speaking of pitching, when she was in her first year of select ball she wanted to pitch so bad, she taped a square to the wall in our basement and would go down there for hours with tennis ball and practice until all she would throw is strikes. She kept asking when she would get a chance to pitch, and I just kept saying “Keep working and one day you’ll be asked and you’ll blow them away.”
That’s exactly what happened. Ryenne’s first time pitching she was almost 9 and she struck the side out 1-2-3. She pitched nearly every game after that—it was she that accomplished that on her own—and she would watch WCWS games and score them in a book to learn. She is a huge fan of the St. Louis Cardinals and knows all about things like stats, plays… everything.
At 15 years old, when Dr. Lueder reached the end of the road of what he could do, he moved her over to Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis to work with a doctor who treats elderly patients with glaucoma, but also carefully takes very complicated pediatric glaucoma patients like Ryenne’s.
He has been treating her for a year now and she has had a 3rd valve placed in her left eye. The other two valves have had to be reconstructed because, as her pressures have come down in her eye the inflammation has as well and the tubes were getting dangerously close to her cornea. Think of an over-inflated balloon and releasing a lot of air from it.
Glaucoma is insidious for children, particularly when it’s not caught early. All the crying, not sleeping, not eating, vomiting, aspirating—all of it—was caused by very high pressures in her eyes. Pressures as high at 60’s, when normal is low 20’s or less.
Ryenne has been put under anesthesia over 35 times in life. They’ve lost her on the table when her airway collapsed, but other than that, she’s been blessed to have very few complications. She has learned how to fail and get back up, that people can be selfish, but you should not be, that coaches can be mean but you cannot react, that pitching is hard and sometimes you need to step back.
“I don’t think about it,” Ryenne interjects, “I can’t. I just have to keep going. I don’t like talking about it, because there is nothing we can do about it, so what’s to say?”
She has also learned that we will never give up on her and Ryenne has had coaches this past year that believed in her so much, they’ve spent countless hours working and helping her.
At tournaments, after practices, on their off-days and in the evenings with or without their own kids working with her, she’s had amazing coaches teaching her, showing her how to get better and believing in her.
Head Coach Kyle Lightbody and Assistant/Pitching Coach Brandy Antonio of Louisville Sluggers 04-Lightbody set the bar last season. They gave her every ounce of their heart and soul and made her believe in herself.
“Coach Kyle and Brandy have made me so much better,” the athlete says gratefully, “I wouldn’t be as far as I am without them.”
Unfortunately, Ryenne’s birthday is December 29, 2003 and she has to move up to 18U, which is super unfortunate for her because she really needs that extra year at 16U. She’s 5-foot-1 and gets overlooked a lot, but is a coach’s dream (and that’s not just a mom’s biased opinion!).
Ryenne is all heart, all work and will do what she is asked to, however many times she’s asked to. She’s played every position in select ball but first, third and centerfield. I always tell her to play where she’s needed so she can play and learn.
And here we are today… she’s nearly 17, working with Mandi Balduf and National Scouting Report to get recruited and play in college somewhere and we are grateful for a third year at Liberty (Missouri) High School where she plays varsity and holds the record for lowest ERA in school history.
Ryenne loves playing but is special at second base. She still works with Coach Lightbody to learn as much as possible at shortstop and hits with Coach Amanda Saito, a former college player and coach.
In March, Ryenne had cataract surgery and her vision was at 20/800 in her left eye. In July, after a late follow-up due to COVID, she was seeing better than she had in years at 20/80.
Still, we know right now it’s fluid and she’s probably not out of the woods as there’s always the potential for more procedures. However, she’s never let it stop her before and she won’t let it stop her now.
For her part, Ryenne goes about her business on the field and admits: “I don’t notice I can’t see well most of the time, unless it gets worse. Then I can sort of tell, but I mostly just use my right eye anyway.”
Currently, Ryenne has a 3.7 weighted GPA (3.56 non-weighted) and wants to play ball at a small D2 or D3 program.
“I am working very hard to be able to play at the next level,” the high schooler states, “and my eyes will not stop me.”