Allergic to grass and dirt, Oxnard High’s Leilani Tupua excels at softball

Girl is smiling.
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Oxnard High School senior Leilani Tupua has overcome severe allergies and asthma to become one of the top softball players in the county. © Juan Carlo/The Star
Standing in center field, Leilani Tupua is surrounded by danger.

The grass beneath her feet. The dirt in the nearby infield. Even the peanuts being eaten in the opposing dugout.

They all could trigger a severe, and potentially deadly, reaction.

There are probably safer sports for Tupua to play than softball, but her love of the game has led her down the path of most resistance.

The Oxnard High senior is allergic to the environment as well as 17 foods. As if that wasn’t enough to handle, Tupua also suffers from severe asthma.

“I had a couple of doctors tell me when she was growing up that she should actually live in a bubble,” said Tupua’s mother, Kelli Ullom. “I didn’t know how to respond to that. How can somebody be allergic to that many things outside and inside? I was really in disbelief.”

Although many doubted Tupua would ever excel in sports, she has proved them wrong. Not only has she overcome the long odds, she has thrived.

Tupua, 18, has developed into one of the area’s top players and earned a softball scholarship to CSU Long Beach.

“It’s pretty amazing everything she has accomplished with her condition,” Oxnard coach Paul Tinoco said. “But she is just a real trooper. She never uses it as an excuse or complains about it. And she definitely doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for her.”

Tupua has suffered from allergies and asthma since birth. She spent most of her childhood in and out of the hospital and visiting numerous specialists.

“Everyone thought she might outgrow it, but it just never let up,” her mother said. “Maybe if she just had allergies or just had asthma or sinus problems or eczema, but she has all of them and has all of them severely.”

Ullom’s maternal instinct was to shelter her daughter, but Tupua wouldn’t have any of it. She was an active child who refused to remain in the house.

As her teammates dealt with typical injuries like sprained ankles and twisted knees, Tupua contended with painful skin rashes, swelling and constricting lungs.

“I was always worried, but the doctors said it was good that she doesn’t just curl up in a hole or in a little corner,” Ullom said. “There are a lot of people who do that, but she refused to, and we learned the sports actually helps her asthma.”

Although Tupua was equally gifted at basketball and volleyball, she decided to stick with softball in high school.

“It is pretty much the worst sport to play with my condition, but it has always been what I was best at,” Tupua said. “It’s something that I can’t live without, and I really enjoy being out there every day.”

Tupua manages her condition with a strict adherence to medication and avoidance of certain foods.

She carries a makeup bag with her at all times. But it’s not full of blush or lipstick; it’s full of pills, shots and inhalers.

Tupua fills 14 to 17 prescriptions each month and is a candidate for nearly every new medication because she can tolerate high dosages.

“Any time I go somewhere overnight, I have to pack all the medicines along with my toothbrush,” Tupua said. “I can’t go anywhere without them. My mom won’t let me.”

But medication alone can’t always shield Tupua from danger.

During a travel ball tournament in Hemet last year, Tupua suffered an allergic reaction to a sandwich that contained peanuts. Her body “swelled up like a balloon” and she couldn’t breathe. She used her emergency EpiPen to inject herself with epinephrine before being rushed to the hospital.

“I can die from peanuts, and I didn’t notice they were in the sandwich,” Tupua said. “I tried to make myself throw it up so I could still play, but I could feel my lungs literally start to close up before I passed out.”

Oxnard has taken a few precautions to ensure Tupua’s safety. The team has a nebulizer in the storage shed near the field in case Tupua has a severe asthma attack like the one she suffered at practice two years ago that required an ambulance to be called.

The device, which turns liquid medication into a fine mist, is a constant reminder to Tupua’s teammates that even the speedy Tupua can’t completely outrun her condition.

“I don’t know how she does it,” Oxnard senior Demi Meza said. “She plays at such an amazing level, but at the same time, she takes so much medication and gets shots every week. She is tough, and just gets through it.”

Tupua appreciates her team’s support, even though she would rather strike out looking than discuss her various ailments.

“I try not to make a big deal about it,” Tupua said. “It’s become normal for them to see me and how I am. They all know not to give me nuts on purpose or anything.”

Ullom believes her daughter’s sunny disposition is the biggest reason for her resiliency.

“She is just such a happy-go-lucky person and her attitude is so good about life,” Ullom said. “I couldn’t imagine being in her shoes, but you wouldn’t think anything was wrong with her. It’s nice to see that she is not dwelling on it.”

The next challenge for Tupua is managing her condition in college, where she won’t have mom around to remind her to take her medications every morning.

“She is already freaking out about that,” Tupua said with a laugh. “But the doctors found a place close to Long Beach to get my shots, and I think I’ll be OK with my medicines. I’ve been doing it for a long time now already. I’m pretty used to it.”

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