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College basketball

FSU basketball freshman dies

Ronalda Pierce succumbs to a ruptured aorta, perhaps from Marfan syndrome.

Published June 9, 2004

Florida State freshman center Ronalda Pierce died early Tuesday from a ruptured aorta, perhaps the result of a genetic disorder, Marfan syndrome, according to preliminary autopsy findings.

She was 19.

"Words cannot begin to express the loss we feel," FSU coach Sue Semrau said in a statement. "Ronalda was a very special person and although she was with us for such a short time, she enriched our lives in many ways. She was a very important part of our Seminole family and we're going to miss her very much. Our thoughts and prayers are with Ronalda's family during this tragedy."

According to Tallahassee police, a 911 call about 2 a.m. from her home reported that Pierce was having difficulty breathing while sleeping. Officers and EMS personnel responded and took Pierce to Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, where she was pronounced dead at 3:17.

Police found no indications of foul play and medical examiner Stephen Sarbeck said an aneurysm ruptured her aorta, the large blood vessel that carries blood away from the heart. The police investigation will remain open until a final report is issued from the coroner's office.

"It could be Marfan or a Marfan-like (condition), but it could be other things, too," Sarbeck said. "We have to rule out other conditions with other testing - toxicology, tissue studies, microscopic studies. It's going to take four to six weeks."

Marfan syndrome is a connective tissue disorder that can affect the skeleton, eyes, nervous system, lungs and heart and blood vessels. A person with the syndrome usually is tall, thin and often loose-jointed. He or she may also have a breastbone that is sunken or bows out, a significantly curved spine and unusually long arms, fingers, legs and toes.

An unseen feature is a weakness of the aorta.

And it can be deadly.

Olympic volleyball star Flo Hyman, who like Pierce was 6-foot-5, died of a ruptured aorta caused by Marfan syndrome during a match in Japan in January 1986. She was 31.

According to the National Marfan Foundation Web site, "there is no simple blood test or skin biopsy" to make a diagnosis.

"The person may not know they have it and if it's not recognized and it's not treated, then the person is at risk of sudden death from a tear and that typically happens in young adulthood, anywhere from the 20s to 40s," said Dr. Alan Braverman, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at Washington University's School of Medicine.

Experts warn that a person with Marfan syndrome must avoid strenuous exercise or competitive athletics.

If Pierce had the syndrome, it never before slowed her. She was a Parade third-team All-American out of Turner (Ga.) County High, which retired her jersey on Jan. 17.

At FSU, she appeared in 29 games as a backup, averaging 5.3 points and 3.5 rebounds; she was second on the team in blocks with 21. She was playing her best at the end of the season, blocking a career-high six shots against Maryland in the ACC tournament quarterfinals and then scoring 11 in the WNIT win against South Alabama.

The Pierce family had not announced plans for services or memorials. Meanwhile, the school provided counselors to members of the team and basketball staff.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the Pierce family and everyone associated with our women's basketball team," athletic director Dave Hart said. "We are fortunate to have a support group in place at FSU and we will make sure that the family, our student-athletes and the staff get the assistance they need. It is such a tragedy."

- For more information about Marfan syndrome, call the National Marfan Foundation at 800 862-7326 or visit the organization's Web site,

[Last modified June 9, 2004, 01:00:39]

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