Community Sports

Bellingham twins battle sickness on the tennis court

Avery Brooks prepares to hit the ball back for a final point against her sister during practice Wednesday, August 5, at Bellingham Tennis Club.
Avery Brooks prepares to hit the ball back for a final point against her sister during practice Wednesday, August 5, at Bellingham Tennis Club. The Bellingham Herald

Halley and Avery Brooks have more in common than being identical twins. Both love tennis, aspire to be professional athletes and cannot eat pizza or fries. The 7-year-old sisters have been fighting a genetic disease since birth but play tennis nearly every day.

The twins have been training at Bellingham Tennis Club since they were 3 years old, under the coaching of Matthew Iwersen. They can compete against players almost twice their size and win, he said.

This week, the Bellingham City Open, Thursday-Friday, August 6-7, will be the third tennis tournament for the twins. They will be playing in the 12 and under division so they can be on the 72-foot court instead of the 60-foot used for their age group.

“They are very competitive,” Iwersen said. “Learning how to lose graciously and win graciously.”

At a tournament in July, Avery won 4-2 and 4-0 against a girl 3 years older than her and more than a foot taller. She lost in the semifinals to Halley, who went on to put up a strong fight in the championship game, scoring points in every round.

Stephanie Brooks, the twins mother, said the girls see their situation as something unique. Last year they went to Ebenezer Christian School, after being home schooled for kindergarten, and began to ask questions about what makes them different from their friends.

It broke her heart when Avery asked if she was sick because she was a twin, Stephanie said. She explained the sickness could have happened to anyone.

Since 3 months old, Halley and Avery have been in and out of hospitals fighting a currently undiagnosed form of genetic disease. After a series of trial and error medicating, Total Parenteral Nutrition brought them to their first healthy weight since birth at 2 years old, with IV feeding. Since TPN is hard on the liver, long-term use simply could not be the answer and that is when a doctor suggested tennis. After picking up rackets and beginning to put on muscle weight, Halley and Avery were hooked. By 5 years old they had the tennis bug, as their mother calls it.

“It was a suggestion to help them medically,” Stephanie said. “But it has turned into something they love and something they’re passionate about.”

When they are playing, Halley and Avery are able to feel normal. The more active they are, the less pain they have from the diagnosed symptoms associated with their mystery disease. At 5 years old, a doctor discovered both girls have gastroparesis, a reaction from the intestines to food that prevents digestion.

“When food hits, for some reason their stomachs just stop functioning,” Stephanie said.

For so long food was Halley and Avery’s enemy, but the more they learn about nutrition, the healthier the entire family has become. The girls can only have about six grams of fat before their body rejects a meal. To prevent painful reactions, Stephanie cooks every meal with the girls in mind.

“If you ask them what their favorite food is, they’ll probably say bananas,” Stephanie said.

The complete turnaround in health for the twins was something no one expected. The doctors at Seattle Children’s Hospital have known the girls since they began treatments over six years ago and even though the disease is still diagnosed, there is unanimous agreement that playing tennis is working to keep the girls healthy.

Activity clears the intestines and liver, keeps blood sugar healthy and has significantly improved their lungs.

Halley and Avery still meet with a geneticist every one or two years and do not know what the future holds, but they are making long-term plans to play tennis.

Halley wants to become a doctor so she can help people, the way her doctors have helped her. But she also wants to be like her role-models she avidly watches play tennis on TV.

“I will keep playing, keep playing,” Halley said. “Never leave it.”

Avery loves competing and winning. If you asked her to play tennis professionally tomorrow, she would say yes in a heartbeat.

To have the girls go from a diagnosis of six months to live, to dreaming about a professional athletic career, was the most amazing thing to witness, Stephanie said.

“They’re 7 (years old) but they’ve touched so many people,” she said. “They don’t even know it. They are my inspiration.”

USTA Bellingham City Open

When: Thursday-Sunday, Aug. 6-9

Where: Bellingham Tennis Club