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Guthrie linebacker battles disorder that causes him to see double

By Jenni Carlson Published: October 26, 2007
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GUTHRIE — Justin Chappell rattles off Guthrie's team motto without hesitation.

"Keep the focus,” he says.

No one wants that more than the senior linebacker.


Chappell is battling a rare neuromuscular disease that attacks his eyes and impairs his vision. He must take eight pills a day just to keep from seeing double. Playbooks would be a jumble, coaches would have four eyes and opponents would have two quarterbacks.

The culprit: myasthenia gravis.

MG turns the immune system against the body. Muscles fail to receive signals from the brain, then grow weaker over time.

Right now, Chappell has the mildest form of MG. It won't keep him from being on the field tonight for the biggest high school football game in the state, No. 1 Carl Albert vs. No. 2 Guthrie.

It hasn't spread to other parts of his body. It's only in his eyes.

Only?

Chappell has tried to tell family and friends what it's like, how he closed his left eye to drive just so he saw one road instead of two, how he looked up to field a pop fly at third and sas two or three baseballs. He even let them use his glasses, the ones that improved his vision a bit but that reversed everyone else's sight to give them a glimpse of what he was seeing.

But really, how could they understand?

They couldn't know his fear, the alarm when he first had problems two years ago but kept them to himself for weeks or the panic when doctors started talking about CAT scans and MRIs and brain tumors. He worried he might never play sports again or go crazy or maybe even die.

They couldn't know that even now, with his MG in check and his senior year in full swing, his fear remains. His disease is managed, not cured.

"The longer he goes,” his dad, Jon, said, "the less his percentages become that it spreads.”

The fear could consume Justin Chappell.

Instead, it focuses him.

Seeing trouble
Justin Chappell sat in his sixth-hour class blinking frantically.

Something was wrong with his eyes.

Just the hour before, a bunch of his classmates were talking about their contact lenses, and here he was struggling to see his teacher, his notebook, anything.

"That's pretty weird,” Chappell thought. "It's just in my head.”

That's what he kept telling himself for the next few weeks. Finally, he decided to tell his mom.

Months of doctor's appointments followed. As the winter of his sophomore year turned to the spring, Chappell tried everything. Glasses. Contacts. Exercises meant to strengthen his eye muscles. He'd move his eyes side to side or hold a string with several balls on it and focus on each one.

"To a regular person, it's simple,” said Chappell, pronounced chap-el. "But to me, I was like, ‘This is too hard. I can't do it.'”

Worse, none of it worked.

Then in late spring 2006, the doctor started talking about MRIs and CAT scans. A tumor might be causing the problems.

As if that wasn't scary enough, all of Guthrie was reeling over another youngster's cancer. Kale Powell, who quarterbacked the football team, learned he had Hodgkin's lymphoma after breaking his collarbone during a game.

Powell died after a 10-month battle.

Chappell's parents, Jon and Sharla, decided their son needed to see a specialist. Within a few weeks of first seeing Dr. R. Michael Siatkowski at the Dean McGee Eye Institute, they had their answer.

Myasthenia gravis.

"They told us not to research it,” Sharla said.

"It would scare us.” Justin said, "That made me freak out more.”

Chappell researched MG. It strikes about one in every 6,000 Americans, making it one of the lesser known autoimmune disorders, but it's most common among women under 40 and people ages 50 to 70.

Young Justin had an old person's disease.

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Guthrie linebacker Justin Chappell is battling myasthenia gravis. By SARAH PHIPPS, THE OKLAHOMAN

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