ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10.COM) — In Kendra Harbinger’s career, stats only tell part of story.
“She’s so dynamic,” UAlbany women’s lacrosse head coach Katie Rowan Thomson said of the senior attack, who ranks fourth on the team with 40 points this season. “She has a great first step getting by one, two, three defenders and their slides, so she’s moving really well.”
The dual-sport athlete earned All-America East honors her freshman and sophomore seasons of lacrosse, despite an ongoing health battle.
“I knew that something was holding me back,” said Harbinger, who also plays soccer at UAlbany.
In addition to constant knee problems, she fought through fatigue and frequent sicknesses at Shenendehowa, which spiked when she got to college.
“I just totally plummeted, couldn’t get out of bed,” Harbinger explained. “I thought I had mono, literally missed practice for like two weeks because I was just sleeping all day. So I got all these tests done and the doctor was like, ‘You’re fine. Everything’s negative. All your blood work looks good.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, but I don’t feel fine.'”
Harbinger’s mental state spiraled downward along with her body. “I was crying all the time because I was like, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ I had so much anxiety.”
Subsequent tests on her heart and lungs over the winter revealed nothing. “‘You’re just a Division I athlete and you’re stressed and you’re anxious,’ and that’s what I was told three times,” said Harbinger.
Refusing to accept that answer, she and her parents acted on a recommendation from a friend, who referred them to functional neurologist and former Division I athlete Dr. Joe Bova.
“They don’t know where to turn,” Dr. Bova said of most patients that walk through his practice door.
“They don’t know what to do, and they heard there’s a crazy guy in Scotia, right, that looks at things a little bit differently.”
Dr. Bova, who views his patients holistically, scrutinized Harbinger’s bloodwork and opened his eyes.”I got the cheat code,” He explained. “Her mom was right next to her, and her mom had been dealing with Hashimoto’s for years.”
Hashimoto’s is a chronic, hereditary auto-immune disease that causes the immune system to attack the thyroid. Harbinger’s thyroid panels were within normal range, but Dr. Bova says the timing of testing can prevent proper diagnosis.
“Antibodies can swing so much in a short period of time,” he said, “and most people can’t go to the doctor every month or every week to get tested.”
According to the American Thyroid Association, more than 12% of Americans will develop a thyroid condition during their lifetime, with up to 60% unaware of it. Some of Harbinger’s teammates have opened up to her about experiencing a similar “heaviness” that she’s described, and her immediate advice is to see Dr. Bova.
“I feel like right now he’s my hero,” she said. “He has like, saved my life.”
With the correct diagnosis, Harbinger has made significant changes to her diet, eliminating gluten, sugar, soy, dairy, seeds, and nuts. She also takes a daily regimen of natural supplements. Though restrictive, Harbinger says it’s 100% worth it. “I feel better than I have in four years,” she said.
Dr. Bova, who calls Harbinger a “model patient,” adds that every case is unique. However, some changes are universally beneficial. “I think limiting grains, looking at your sugar intake, alcohol intake, that’s a fantastic place to start,” he said.
Starting early is key when it comes to autoimmune diseases.
Dr. Bova warns, “You don’t want to be caught up in the working backwards where you’ve waited, waited, waited, and now 10 years goes by and you’ve got three different auto-immune diseases, you can’t get pregnant, and you potentially have cancer.”
Before sounding the alarms when self-analyzing symptoms, Dr. Bova recommends you ask yourself whether you’ve seen a break in your norm.
“If you’re always tired but you’ve got three kids at home, you work two jobs, okay, that’s not a disease. That’s life, right? But if that’s your normal and all of a sudden you start developing debilitating headaches that you can’t function anymore and nothing else has changed, maybe you should look into that a little more.”
Harbinger’s advice is to trust yourself and your body. Neither she nor her parents gave up on getting the proper diagnosis, and now that she has the right support and recovery plan, both her body and mind feel lighter.
“I feel pretty unstoppable.”