Young basketball talent Riva Walker-Pitman is facing an enormous challenge having been diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS) on 26 April.
On court, Riva is a Tall Fern in the making. She has been a member of six championship Waikato teams during her rise through the age-group nationals. In 2019, she was a standout for her Hamilton Girls’ High School team at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Nationals, taking them all the way to the Grand Final and high-scoring for her team with 18 points. In the Semi-Final of that event, she was unstoppable, totaling 43 points. At the time, she was also scouted by Fordham University. Riva committed to the school and was set to travel to New York City to join two other Kiwis, Kendell Herimaia and Zara Jillings, on a scholarship.
Riva’s Aunty, Charmaine Walker-Eketone, says the diagnosis was a shock, especially as it came the day before Fordham University officially announced that they had acquired the young Waikato talent.
“Riva spent the Level 4 lock down in Whakatane with friends. Her first symptoms were tingling pins and needles in her toes and then her legs, and she knew something was wrong when she went to step and her legs gave way. She could not stand without help and her arms became very weak.”
New Zealand was preparing to go into Level 3 lockdown and Riva was going to come home. Instead she spent the night in the Whakatane ER on her own. The following morning, she was transferred to Tauranga hospital for a second opinion to confirm that she had GBS. Then Riva’s health deteriorated rapidly to a state of severe paralysis.
Walker-Eketone says Riva went through this harrowing time alone. The lockdown meant visitors, including family, were not allowed in the High Dependence Unit (HDU). After one day in Tauranga, Riva was transferred to Waikato Hospital.
“We had a few people from Waikato Basketball rep programme working behind the scenes on Tuesday, to make things happen quickly so Riva could be closer to home and family in Ohautira, Raglan. It was a relief for Riva to be closer to home, although family were still not allowed into see her.”
Riva’s treatment progressed to the point where, after three weeks in HDU and no longer needing one-on-one care for 24 hours each day, she was a moved to a rehabilitation ward and was finally able to have visitors.
“She has had a visit from one of the Fordham Rams co-captains, Kendell Heremaia, plus Zoom chats with Fordham Head Coach Stephanie Gaitley and coach Valerie Nainima. Tall Ferns Penina, Ella Fotu and Coach Jody Cameron also came to visit.
“Riva has made huge progress. Her eyesight and hearing has returned, she no longer needs a feeding tube, for the first time in ages she is allowed to eat what she wants as she needs to regain body weight, her arm and leg movement is returning, and she is able to stand on her own for a minute, and walk with a walking aid around her ward.”
One of the regular visitors is Tall Ferns legend Carolyn Grey, who is the Hamilton Girls’ High School Coach. Grey attends Riva’s physiotherapy and hydrotherapy sessions five days a week.
“She is amazingly brave,” says Grey. “These are really trying times for Riva, physically and mentally, but she has taken this on and been incredibly strong. The progress she has been making is fantastic.”
Walker-Eketone says Grey has been a wonderful support and, like any good coach, she knows how to get Riva to do that little bit more to stay focused.
“Riva has had days where she has felt down and frustrated, like any other athlete and hasn’t always got a smile when the coach comes in, but when she hears “Come on Riv,” as much as she wants to resist, she knows it’s time to focus and start her therapy sessions.”
Walker-Eketone says Riva has a reflective journal that she puts her thoughts into every day.
“She has learnt that it is ok to feel frustrated or tired, and it is part of the recovery process. She knows to remember it will not always be like this and to celebrate all of the small improvements. She thinks about reaching the goals that are set for her and the goals she has set herself, one being getting to Christchurch in October as Assistant Coach of the Waikato Under 17 Girls.”
Waikato U17s Head Coach Anthony Corban says Riva has already attended a couple of sessions with the defending U17 national champions, with the doctors allowing occasional day trips.
“She is an amazing young woman. Last Saturday she attended the Mid-North Zone Under 15 and 17 girls’ qualifying tournament in Cambridge. She helped coach our team in our game versus Tauranga.
“I want her with us in Christchurch in October and she wants to be there, and more importantly the girls want her with us. Her self-determination and drive will see her there,” says Coach Corban.
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Riva Walker-Pitman is one fierce competitor and now she is taking on a big challenge – we have so much admiration for the way she is doing that! Having just signed a Div I contract with @fordhamuniversity in NYC earlier this year, soon after she was diagnosed with Guillain-Bare Syndrome (GBS). She has been incredibly brave during her very tough recovery and has even managed to get courtside to support her beloved Waikato team! We managed to get @TallFerns Ella, Jody and Penina down there to visit – they came back saying how impressive, inspiring and courageous Riva is. Read the full story on www.nz.basketball.
Corban’s not the only one wanting Riva’s return to court. Head Coach at Fordham University, Stephanie Gaitley, says they know of Riva’s ability and are looking forward to her arrival.
“We are super excited about Riva joining us in the future. This is just a bump in the road and we have no doubt she will fully recover. Lana Kershaw – a former player from LIU – tipped us off about Riva and her amazing talents. This led to speaking with Riva, and then having her and her family visit us last year. We feel she will continue the great legacy we have had with Kiwis.”
For now, Riva continues to be based at Waikato Hospital as she works through her recovery.
Walker-Eketone says the basketball community’s support has been incredible, and Riva and her family are grateful.
“As a family we would like to thank all of the medical and hospital staff that have supported, and who continually support Riva in her recovery journey, also to everyone who has visited and sent messages of love and speedy recovery. A special mention to Luana Ngatai, Carolyn Grey, Anthony Corban and the Waikato Basketball Community, along with the Fordham Rams women’s basketball family, Basketball New Zealand and the Tall Ferns.”
Watch the Grand Final of the 2019 AA Girls’ Schick Championships between St Peter’s Cambridge and Hamilton Girls’ High School here, featuring Riva Walker-Pitman (number 7).
Watch the semi-final of the 2019 AA Girls’ Schick Championships between Hamilton Girls’ High School and St. Mary’s College. (Riva Walker-Pitman high scores with 34).