Bigger than the Game: Tulane signs special player Arabella Gerald

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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Not too long ago, something very special happened on Tulane’s campus that you probably didn’t hear about, but it was a really big deal for all of those involved.

“Today is the day we add a very special team member to our team this year," said Lisa Stockton, who’s the head women’s basketball coach at Tulane University.

On this day, the Green Wave would get the kind of commitment from 6-year-old Arabella Gerald that doesn’t come along too often. Because this relationship was about much more than just hoops. To fully understand what it’s really about, all you have to do is go to class with Bella and hang out with her and her best friends - which consists of a room full of 6 year olds.

It’s where Bella feels most at ease, which came as a bit of a shock to her mom.

“I was very nervous about putting her here,” said Desiree Aucoin, who enrolled Bella at Lysee Francais a year ago. “I wanted her to be where she was around other kids, but I was nervous because she was fragile.”

And that made Aucoin’s decision to enroll her daughter all the more difficult. You see, Bella’s got a lot going on. Way more than most kids her age.

“She sees her friends running around and wants to join them,” Aucoin said. “She tries to, but she just fatigues so easily and starts falling and stumbling.”

Normally, a kid falling and stumbling wouldn’t be that big of a deal. But for Bella, it was, and it has been for a long time. It all began when Bella was a baby. That’s when her mom began to notice things.

“When she was 6 months old, she didn’t roll over. She didn’t make any sounds, and I was a little concerned," Aucoin said. "At nine months, I took her to the doctor and began receiving referrals to neurologists, muscle specialists, trying to figure out what’s going on.”

After years of trial and error by doctors, it was determined that Bella suffered from mitochondrial complex three deficiency.

“It’s like riding a car on four cylinders," Aucoin said. "It just misfires all the time. Hit or miss, it affects each part of the body differently.”

And with Bella, it affects her respiratory system, liver, kidneys and her brain. At some point every day, her struggles are out there for all of the adults to see and manage, and for her classmates to see and react to.

“Those kids were amazing, it was amazing, made my heart swell seeing how they interacted with her, how gentle they were with her and how much they genuinely care about her,” Aucoin said.

Because of how they care about her, that’s exactly how Bella feels about them - and anyone she comes in contact with, present company included. She insisted during our brief interaction that I sit with her in the doll house. So when in Bella’s house, it’s Bella’s rules.

"She is sunshine and puppy dog tails. She is joy. I have no right to wallow in that sorrow when she’s bringing joy to everyone she meets,” Aucoin said.

Now the negative to this story. The absolute worse thing about having a child with mito disease is trying to plan that child’s future. You have absolutely no idea how long you have. That’s why making the most of every day is what’s most important.

“Creating memories for her and for us, because whenever she goes, that’s all we’re gonna have is those memories,” Aucoin said. “I don’t want them to be of us worrying every night about the day that’s gonna come. There’s a lot of vulnerability, powerlessness and heartbreak, because you don’t know what’s going on with your child. You don’t know what the future holds."

Meanwhile, back at Tulane, in the present, a special occasion for Bella was also one to remember for her family - and especially her new teammates.

“We’re really thankful to have her on the team, and I know she’s gonna be our MVP," said teammate Harlyn Wyatt, who, along with the rest of her Green Wave teammates, came together to make a child’s day brighter - and probably brighter for some adults, as well.

Coach Lisa Stockton summed up the day the best, saying, “It just works. I think any time you add some happiness to someone, it puts things into perspective.”

Coach is right. In so many ways.

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