November 21, 2013

McPherson defies illness, inspires Lady Spartans

By Brion O’Connor

Goalie Brittany McPherson, 15, plays for the Middlesex Islanders and the St. Mary’s Lady Spartans (Lynn, Mass.) Photo/Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal

In many ways, Brittany McPherson is your typical overactive, overscheduled, overachieving high school freshman. A 15-year-old student at St. Mary’s School in Lynn, Mass., McPherson often gets up early, before classes start, to attend student government meetings as ninth-grade vice president. After school, she does homework until hockey practice, or her workouts with a personal trainer. And then it’s back to the books.

What a difference a year can make.

Just last fall, McPherson was struggling to get back into shape, following a grueling yearlong battle with ulcerative colitis that ultimately led to radical surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital in June 2012. A promising goaltender before getting sick, McPherson lost 25 pounds during her ordeal that began just after Halloween 2011.

“She was frightened,” said her mother, Karen McPherson. “I spent every single day with her at the hospital, 35 nights at Mass General. Every time they came in with info — and they had teams of people coming in, saying this failed and that failed. We were in shock, because she was such a healthy athlete, and she was being brought to her knees.”

Immediately following the surgery, which included the removal of a large portion of her lower intestinal tract, McPherson went into septic shock, requiring another week of hospitalization. Even after returning home, she struggled to regain her fitness. Her daily diet included more than a dozen different medications, and she often felt weak and exhausted.

“I visited her in the hospital right before and right after her surgery, and looking at her, most people would have said she wasn’t coming back in the fall,” said Stephanie Wood, coach of McPherson’s U-14 and U-16 Middlesex Islanders teams. “For Brittany, that wasn’t an option. She had it in her mind that she was going to do whatever it takes to make sure she could recover and get back.”

McPherson persevered, working out during the summer of 2012 to fulfill the promise she showed when she was selected for the Islanders U-14 Tier 1 team just months before she was hospitalized.

“Not only did she come back and play, but the team she played on, for the first time ever, hit a milestone for the organization and reached the USA Hockey national championship at the Tier 1 level,” said Wood. “That in itself is absolutely amazing. She not only played the season, but carried her team to the national tournament at the Tier 1 level.”

McPherson’s recovery has been impressive, but not shocking, according to her surgeon, Dr. Daniel Doody.

“I think it’s true of young athletes, particularly, tend to really drive themselves and do well,” said Doody. “I think Brittany’s recovery was aided by the fact that she’s a relatively good young athlete and is motivated to participate at a high level.”

McPherson also made the varsity of her St. Mary’s high school squad, where she served as backup to junior Lauren Skinnion as the Lady Spartans captured the Massachusetts state championship. However, St. Mary’s coach Frank Pagliuca said McPherson received no preferential treatment.

“Our philosophy is, the kids earn their playing time. It’s not given to them,” said Pagliuca during the Lady Spartans’ championship run. “Lauren was entrenched as the starter, and we were upfront with Brittany about where she stood. … She’s worked very hard and we’re trying to get her enough games to keep her sharp.

“From where she was last year to where she’s gotten herself this year is remarkable, and it’s a credit to her and her doctors and her family for giving her the support needed to get to where she is today. And she’ll tell you that she’s still working to get back to where she wants to be. She’s never satisfied with her results and is always willing to push herself. It goes to her work ethic and her commitment not just to hockey, but to her health.”

These days, McPherson is more than happy to spend her afternoons lacing up her skates, strapping on her goalie pads and taking to the ice to set up shop between the pipes for her Islanders squad. And she plans to be in the mix at St. Mary’s when the high school season starts.

“I’m doing really good,” said the outgoing McPherson in October. “I have so much more energy now, compared to before. Last year, after school, I’d have to come home and sleep. Now, I can pretty much do what I want.”

The best part, she said, is that she rarely thinks of her condition while playing anymore, even though she still needs to monitor it off the ice. “Whenever I go on the ice, I just put in 100 percent effort, no matter what,” she said.

That attitude applies to McPherson’s work with Brittany’s Battle Buddies, a group she and her parents created to promote awareness of illnesses such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. The group collected close to $10,000 in the past year, and next spring will partner with the pediatric gastro-intestinal team at Mass General to continue to raise funds for the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America.

“Brittany is just an outstanding all-around person,” said Wood. “Given what she’s gone through, at such a young age, it’s amazing. She’s such an inspiration, not only to her teammates, but all those around her.”

“It was a tough period, but we made it through because we stuck together like a team,” said Scott McPherson, Brittany’s father. “When you go through something like that, it gives you a greater awareness of maybe what other people are going through. So, I think we have a little more compassion for what other people might be going through.

“Through Brittany’s Battle Buddies … we can educate people and let other sufferers out there know that they’re not alone.”

While McPherson tends to downplay her illness and subsequent recovery, her parents acknowledge the hardship and the strain of Brittany’s personal battle has had a lingering effect on the family.

“None of us take anything for granted anymore,” said Scott McPherson. “You can wake up on auto-pilot and go through your routine, but now it’s not like that for us anymore. We went through that tough year and a half, and that was a battle every day. That’s still fresh in our mind, so we enjoy the small things now. We stop to smell the roses. We appreciate each other more now. It’s had an impact on us. We don’t just go through the motions anymore. We enjoy every moment we can.”

Suffice to say, McPherson’s Islanders teammates are enjoying the continued resurgence of their young netminder.

“She’s getting stronger and stronger as time goes by,” said Wood. “I think she’s getting closer to 100 percent. As good as she is, she still is not fully recovered, but that’s a good thing. She’s a great goalie, and will be even better once she’s 100 percent healthy.”

For more information on Brittany’s Battle Buddies, visit the group’s page on Facebook.