Monday, December 29, 1997
Her heart's in the game
Phillips back on court after surgery

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jennifer Phillips is back in action just three months after heart surgery.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
ELIDA, Ohio - Here is what happened to Xavier freshman Jennifer Phillips in a three-month span:

She was diagnosed with a congenital heart condition, underwent surgery, suffered two setbacks, and remarkably played in her first game for the women's basketball team.

Nine days ago, about eight minutes into a game against visiting Northern Illinois, XU coach Melanie Balcomb yelled down the bench: ''Phillips, get Susanna (Stromberg).''

Phillips entered the game cautiously, wearing a pad on her chest to protect her sternum, wondering if she was ready.

''She looked shocked when I called her name,'' said Balcomb. ''I had to call it three times.''

Northern Illinois was pressing. Phillips found herself wide open. She got a pass and, with 12:02 left in the half, scored on a layup. Fans, teammates and coaches were screaming.

The 6-foot-2 forward finished with 10 points, 12 rebounds, two assists, two blocks and three steals in 24 memorable minutes. ''It was real emotional for all of us,'' said Phillips' mom, Lynne, who watched from the stands with her husband, family and friends.

''My best friend came to the game. I was driving home with her and said I couldn't believe I just played in a game,'' Jennifer Phillips said. ''After all the pain, being in and out of the hospital, I had finally played a basketball game.''

. . .

Phillips verbally committed to attend Xavier in June 1996, 14 months before she would begin college. As a senior at Elida High School, just outside Lima, she averaged 19.4 points and 10.6 rebounds and led her team to the Division II state championship. She was named Northwest Ohio Player of the Year. Last summer, she helped lead her AAU team to a national title.

Quiet and unassuming off the court, Phillips was the marquee player in Balcomb's recruiting class and arrived with the potential to be one of XU's best women's players ever. She was picked to the preseason Atlantic 10 Conference all-rookie team.

On Sept. 19, she and teammates Erin Senser and Jennifer Parr were at a checkup with cardiologist Brian Skale. His exam included a treadmill stress test and an echocardiogram.

Skale has been doing such tests for Xavier athletes for more than 10 years. For the first time, he detected a substantial problem. Phillips had atrial septal defect (ASD), one of the most common congenital heart conditions found in adults. Phillips had a hole in her heart, which prevented the blood from mixing properly. Also, the right side of her heart was enlarged.

All that caused her heart to work harder than normal. Though not immediately life-threatening, it would have to be fixed.

''I can't really say we were calm because we were scared to death,'' Lynne Phillips said.

Jennifer's parents drove to Cincinnati to have Skale explain the options.

''What Jennifer had done was not so much to help her today, tomorrow, next month or next year, but to make her 50s, 60s and 70s as normal as hopefully yours and mine will be,'' Skale said. ''She could've played this year without the surgery. She could've probably played next year without the surgery.''

The risk would have been minimal.

''But why take that risk?'' Skale said. '' . . . The right thing to have done for Jennifer was to fix that ASD so whatever small risk is present is gone.''

Phillips decided she wanted surgery as soon as possible.

''When I first found out about it, for the first three hours all I did was cry,'' Phillips said. ''I wasn't thinking about my health or school. The only thing I could think about was missing basketball.''

. . .

Five days later, Phillips was at Good Samaritan Hospital at 6 a.m. for what doctors consider minor open-heart surgery - if there is such a thing.

Still, her parents were thinking: Anything can happen. ''We wanted her healthy,'' Lynne said. ''We could care less about basketball.'' Phillips remembers receiving a shot to relax her, getting hooked up to an IV and watching lines being drawn on her body with a magic marker where doctors would cut.

Dr. J. Michael Smith, the cardiovascular surgeon who performed the operation, said Phillips was hooked up to a heart and lung machine. Her heart had to be stopped for close to 15 minutes so it could be opened up. Her sternum was cut in half, from top to bottom, with a hand-controlled power surgical saw.

Doctors originally thought the hole was the size of a penny, but it turned out closer to the size of a silver dollar. It was repaired with her own body tissue.

The operation lasted one hour, 40 minutes. To allow the sternum to fuse, Phillips has three permanent, stainless steel wires holding it together.

Later that day, Phillips was sitting up in bed and the next afternoon she sat in a chair. On Sunday, Sept. 28 - four days after surgery and nine days after learning about her condition - Phillips went home to Elida to begin her recovery.

. . .

Two weeks later, she was back at Xavier. On Monday, Oct. 13, she was in an 8:30 a.m. anatomy class when she started feeling sick. She returned to her dorm room. She had intense pain in her stomach. Her back hurt. She couldn't eat or sleep or stop sweating.

Early Tuesday morning, she started vomiting and couldn't stop. By 2 p.m., she was on her way to the emergency room. That night, an ultrasound showed that her gall bladder was enlarged. Surgery was scheduled for the next morning.

An echocardiogram showed fluid had built up around the heart, which was so swollen it pushed on the liver and diaphragm. Smith used a syringe to drain nearly two liters of fluid.

Two days later, Phillips expected to be released, which would have allowed her to attend Midnight Madness at Xavier that night. When doctors told her she would have to stay in the hospital, Phillips started throwing items off the table in front of her. ''I was so mad,'' she said.

Early that evening, when Smith visited her, she proposed a deal: Let me out for four hours and I'll bring you back my Midnight Madness T-shirt.


''That made her night,'' Lynne said. ''Made ours, too.''

Her teammates did not know Phillips - dressed in her practice uniform and still wearing her hospital band - would be at the Armory when the team was announced to a crowd of boosters.

Said Balcomb: ''For me personally, that was the most emotional time. We knew she was OK and back with the team. It was just inspirational.''

. . .

A week later, Phillips suffered a second complication and had to return to the hospital to again have fluid drained from around her heart. For six days, she took steroids. Then she began her comeback.

Slowly, she worked her way into practices, first with non-contact shooting drills and walking in the gym. Then, gradually, a little more activity. Team physician Howard Schertzinger said that all along doctors thought Phillips could return by mid-to-late-January.

On Nov. 21, Skale cleared her to practice all-out. Phillips would tire after five minutes of a drill, rest, then resume. It was hard to breath sometimes and her ribs still hurt. She pulled a muscle in her back because she was a little out of shape. Just another minor setback.

On Dec. 19, Skale uttered the magic words: You're cleared to play in games; I'll see you in April for a checkup.

Smith said Phillips will probably be an even better player because her stamina should improve in the near future.

Balcomb might have preferred Phillips red-shirt, then play four years while 100 percent healthy. But she left the decision to Phillips.

''I never thought about red-shirting,'' Phillips said. ''I don't care if I only play 10 minutes a game, I'm not red-shirting. My reasoning is kind of selfish. If I had to practice all year and not be rewarded (with games), it'd be hard to be motivated every day. I just know myself; I know that's how I'd be.''

''She set her goals,'' Balcomb said. ''I certainly wasn't going to take that away from her.''

Trainer Jody Jenike, who had worked daily with Phillips, had never seen her play before. After the Dec. 20 Northern Illinois game, Phillips went to the training room and asked: ''Well, what did you think?''

''It was worth the wait,'' Jenike said.