HELENA — Pain had become part of Leigha Carter's life.

The Helena Capital High junior suffered through months of an unknown ailment, and even some more discomfort after treatment began.

Once she knew what was wrong, Carter endured three months of Lovenox injections, a blood thinner that became part of her daily treatment for two pulmonary embolisms discovered in her lungs in late 2018.

The pain had been chronic during the winter last year. Problems began when Carter participated in the track postseason the previous spring.

"During the winter time, I couldn't even walk up the stairs without passing out," she said. "A friend of mine would help me up the stairs, carry my stuff, and told me, 'If you don't get over this, you'll never be able to do anything again.'"

Still, Carter carried on. She continued to compete in powerlifting and train for the spring track season despite struggling to breathe at night.

Carter even helped set the all-time Capital 4x100 relay time of 49.15 seconds during her illness. She set the mark at the state meet with Audrey Bloomquist, Melissa Moreni and her sister Elena, who now runs track at Montana State. 

Carter went through multiple visits with doctors, emergency rooms and medical clinics before receiving a formal diagnosis.

"Oh God, we went to the ER a lot, and they still couldn't figure out what was going on," her father, Lee Carter, said. "We couldn't figure out what was going on, and she couldn't breathe (correctly). She used other inhalers and finally, because of the chest pain, we got a CT scan and had to go up to a group in Kalispell to see a specialist."

Intuitively, she knew something wasn't right.

"It was a couple of days before state, and the doctors told me, 'You'll be fine, get over it,' and they gave me antibiotics, and sent me on my way," Carter said. "It was a little bit cold, and I had much pain. I started feeling like my ribs were separating themselves. I kept telling myself, 'It is just a cold, you are fine.'"

After multiple tests and seeing a specialist, Carter finally received the answer: pulmonary embolisms, which occurs when a blood clot gets lodged in an artery in a lung, blocking blood flow. Clots most often originate in the legs and travel up through the right side of the heart and into the lungs.

"I didn't believe (the diagnosis); I am an active young person," Carter said. "The type of person that happens to is (typically) way older than me. The diagnosis was hard to accept at first. This is what I had to deal with, and I am upset that it happened to me."

Elena Carter, who was in Bozeman, couldn't help but focus her attention on home and her sister.

"I was at (MSU) most of the time, and I was so worried about her the whole time," Elena said. "I would text her to make sure she is doing OK, and she would get down on herself. I don't think she understood how serious something like (what she was suffering from) was, and we offered much support coming from her family. She just gritted her teeth, and I don't think she knew the severity of how sick she was."

Throughout the spring and summer of 2018, the problem was persistent with no end in sight. Carter never lost her desire to compete in cross country, powerlifting and track.

"I didn't complain," she said. "It is just like having a disability. I am not going to say, 'I can't do this just because of a medical condition.' I (decided to prove) that I can get through it, and that is the mindset that got me where I am right now."

Carter never took a break, fearing she would lose an opportunity to obtain a track scholarship if she took a hiatus from competition. She hopes to join her sister at MSU.

"She would be so tired, and I didn't see her very much after she competed," Elena Carter said. "She would do her races, and barely be able to get up, and move. She was so cold she wouldn't be able to warm herself up, which is a problem for people on blood thinners, and that took a toll on everything."

Lee Carter, who was a linebacker at Montana State, recalls experiencing his own bout with a pulmonary embolism, a condition that has no genetic predisposition.

"It was miserable, in all honesty," Lee said. "It felt like someone was stabbing me in the rib cage, and twisting a knife every day. I was miserable and aching. You can't breathe (normally), and you can't inhale. She is a lot tougher than me because it put me down."

Leigha, in one of her first meets without blood thinners this spring, qualified for the Class AA state meet in the 200 meters with a time of 26.56 at the Tri-Invitational at Vigilante Stadium.

Now that she's stabilized and getting stronger, Carter would like to focus on following in the family's rich athletic tradition of collegiate athletes.

"As parents, we like to push (our kids) to be super involved," Lee Carter said. "With our kids being involved in sports, it's a pretty healthy thing knowing that they are going into the right direction, and (our family) is heavily inundated with sports. It's pretty much in our blood."

Lee said he felt Leigha made progress as she pushes toward returning to her average weight. She was down from 114 pounds to 105, and still isn't quite at full strength.

Being on medication so long held her back. She isn't cured and her progress must be monitored because there's a possibility her condition can reoccur. 

"She's been on the first leg of the relay team the last couple of years," Lee said. "She's run the 4x400 and continues to get a little stronger. Her goal for next year is to get on the 4x400 team and get her lungs to 100 percent. She will be good to go. I would like to see her run the 400, but she isn't brave enough to do it yet.

"When you continue to lose that kind of weight, and that strength and power coming out of the block, it's huge. That is why this family is really into lifting. I coach weight training, and (our family) wants to be in the weight room, and they want to lift. When she lost weight, she lost strength, especially when you are running. And conditioning is hard to put on good weight and strength."

Capital girls track coach Dick McMahon admires Carter's strength.

"She's just a competitor, and you look at her, and you wouldn't think she competes harder than boys probably twice her size," McMahon said. "During practice, she wants to race her sister, and it's like, 'Oh my God,' she competes all of the time. It's kind of neat to see, and she's a tough kid.'"

After everything Leigha has experienced, she is now more motivated than ever.

"I am motivated and would love to run with my sister in college, and that would be the best thing ever," Leigha said. "I am not quite there yet. I still have a long ways to go, and I am motivated, and I want it bad. Having this happen to me has motivated me, and now I am driven. I want it more and more, and I feel if I can get through this, I can get through college."

Jason Blasco is the lead prep sports reporter for the Helena Indepedent-Record and a sports reporter for the 406mtsports.com network.

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