Photo by Theo Tate
Lee Ann Hopkins (left) has been a big supporter of the Granite City boys volleyball team since her son, Nathan (right), joined the program in his sophomore year. Lee Ann was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension in 2012.
Lee Ann Hopkins was all smiles after seeing her son, Nathan, help the Granite City boys volleyball team beat Alton in three games for its first victory of the season on April 21.
“It was so exciting,” Lee Ann said.
After the match, the 44-year-old Lee Ann had another reason to smile. The Warriors dedicated their victory to her.
“I was very surprised when they dedicated the game to me,” Lee Ann said. “It was nice and we won!”
Three years ago this month, Lee Ann was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, an incurable disease that causes high blood pressure in the lungs.
“I thought she was going to be gone and I wouldn’t see her anymore,” said Nathan, a senior.
In their match against Alton, the Warriors had a pulmonary hypertension awareness event. Those in attendance received a blue sucker and a card with pulmonary hypertension information.
“I was surprised that the volleyball team was doing this because I didn’t know until after school,” Nathan said. “One of the player’s (senior Ben Schipkowski) moms came in and told me we were all doing this. She was telling me it was a surprise.”
After losing its first seven matches, Granite City beat Alton in three games in the first meeting between both teams. Granite City coach Justin Warren said he was happy that his team pulled off the win for Lee Ann.
“We went over and smacked her hand for the win because she’s here almost every game when she’s feeling well and just supporting our team, so we just wanted to support her, too,” Warren said.
Lee Ann started feeling ill during a family trip to Six Flags in May 2012.
“The trip to Six Flags came before I went to the doctor,” Lee Ann said. “I had some ankle swelling that I just thought it was part of adult woman life. It got worse to where I was having chest pains. We were trying to walk to a ride and I threw up before we even got on the ride.”
The ride Lee Ann was referring to was the Boss, a wooden rollercoaster.
“When we got there, she felt like she couldn’t breathe,” said Nathan, then a freshman at Granite City High. “All of the sudden, she ended up getting sick.”
Lee Ann was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension on May 31, 2012. Her prognosis was three to five years.
“The anniversary of year No. 3 is coming, which we don’t dwell on that,” said Lee Ann, who has a 5-year-old niece born with pulmonary hypertension. “The only way for me to beat it is to get a double lung transplant. But I’m not sick enough to get on a transplant list yet. They have a weight limit just for reasons of safety and I’m still 20 pounds overweight. So if it came down to I was feeling really sick, I’m sure I would drop weight immediately.”
Lee Ann said her life changed when she found out she had pulmonary hypertension.
“I thought my life was done,” said Lee Ann, who worked as an office manager for her uncle Phil Valicoff, a dentist at Granite City. “I was used to going to work every day and all of that changed. I couldn’t do the laundry and I can’t take a shower by myself. There were a lot of changes that happened.”
In 2013, Lee Ann found something that helped lift up her spirits — volleyball. She started going to volleyball matches after Nathan joined the boys’ volleyball team in his sophomore year.
“I’m a huge supporter of that program,” Lee Ann said. “It’s such a wonderful program. It’s unlike any other, I believe, at the high school. It’s really motivating and it really promotes being kids and having fun and being successful, and not all about the wins and all about killed or to be killed. It’s not life-threatening if you don’t win a game.”
Lee Ann influenced Nathan to try out for the team in his sophomore year.
“After I played basketball (in my freshman year), my mom looked on the high school website and saw volleyball and she told me that I should try out,” Nathan said. “So I went out and I tried it.”
This spring, Nathan is playing in his third and final season with the Granite City boys volleyball program. At 6-foot-5, Nathan is the team’s tallest player.
“I knew that the volleyball team would utilize his height and he can still jump and block and do all of that,” Lee Ann said. “Then, I found out how great the coaches were and they bonded really good with him. They’re really great people.”
When he’s not playing volleyball, Nathan plays the role of caretaker for his mother.
“I do a lot,” Nathan said. “When she asks me to do laundry, I’ll do it. Take out the trash, I’ll do it. If she needs me to get oxygen, I’ll go downstairs and get it for her and bring it back up and give it to her.”
Lee Ann said even though Nathan will graduate this year, she will continue to support the Granite City boys volleyball team.
“I just love the program,” Lee Ann said. “It helped keep me going.”
Nathan, 19, said he’s grateful to have his mother watch him play in his final high school volleyball season.
“She’s still here,” Nathan said. “What I’m thankful for is she’s still here with me.”