In ice hockey, success is measured largely by wins and losses. For 14-year-old Brittany McPherson, success was simply stepping on the ice this fall, three short months after major surgery and a subsequent two-week stay at Massachusetts General Hospital.
But McPherson didn’t just succeed. She excelled. The teenage goaltender from Lynn backboned her U-14 Middlesex Islanders squad to a 11-4-2 record this fall before joining perennial powerhouse St. Mary’s of Lynn as an eighth-grader.
“I was not going to take ‘No’ for an answer,” said McPherson on the eve of the state tournament. “I was a fighter. I wanted to get through it. I said ‘I’m going to do it, nothing’s impossible.’ I just had a lot of faith, and hope.”
At St. Mary’s, backing up junior Lauren Skinnion, McPherson started four games, registering four wins with two shutouts for the 16-3-4 Lady Spartans. She boasts a 1.45 goals against average, and a .911 save percentage. And McPherson has done so without her large intestine and some of her lower gastrointestinal tract, which were removed on June 7.
“With this surgery alone, a lot of people thought there was no way she would be able to play hockey at all this year,” said Islanders coach Stephanie Wood, also the coach at Austin Prep, which faced St. Mary’s in the Division 1 quarterfinals on Tuesday night.
“It’s a surgery that leaves you weak. You have to do a lot of rehab,” said Wood. “So certainly it’s a testament to her drive and perseverance that’s well beyond her age. She really worked her way back, and that speaks volumes about her character and the type of young lady she is.”
In early November 2011, McPherson fell ill with stomach pains. Her folks, Karen and Scott, suspected too much Halloween candy. In reality, it was the start of a 20-month nightmare. She was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an autoimmune disease that attacks the lower gastrointestinal tract. An initial round of medication proved unsuccessful, but a second regimen of short-term anti-inflammatory drugs allowed McPherson to continue playing hockey. As a seventh-grader, she helped lead the Winthrop-Lynn squad to a 14-5-1 mark, and a spot in the state tournament.
Shortly after the season, however, the ulcerative colitis began to worsen. “It was a ticking clock,” said Karen McPherson, a former nurse. “I expected Brittany might need surgery in three or four years. I never in my wildest dreams thought it would come within six months from onset. Even the nurses and doctors hadn’t seen that.”
“At some point, they said this disease is so aggressive, and every drug is failing,” she said. “She actually could have died from this. And if she lived 20 years ago, she would have died. They said a potential cure for ulcerative colitis is to remove the colon.”
For Scott McPherson, the months of disappointing results were exasperating. “We tried to always remain upbeat and positive,” he said. “But at some point, when you saw these medications that typically have worked for the majority of other patients, and those continued to fail, then you start to think that all these aspirations and plans that you had for your daughter — who was this strong athlete and great student — all those hopes and dreams, they may not happen. We came to that realization in April.”
McPherson’s surgeon, Dr. Daniel Doody at Massachusetts General Hospital, said ulcerative colitis is “a bad disease.”
“Not only is it debilitating in that children have to go to the bathroom frequently; they will lose blood,” he said. “You can have perforation from the disease. The large intestine can actually perforate. And there’s another problem that can occur, which we call a toxic mega-colon, where bacteria goes from the colon into the bloodstream, and you can get very sick from that. These kids are pretty miserable.”
Doody employed a technique pioneered in Boston by Dr. James Becker to replace Brittany’s lower gastrointestinal tract with a pouch made from her small intestine.
“I was a little scared,” said McPherson, who had lost 20 pounds prior to surgery. “But I was actually happy, too, because I knew I was going to get better.”
According to Doody, McPherson’s competitive nature was an asset. “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,” he said.
“A lot of our kids do well, like Brittany. About a third to 50 percent do extremely well after a single-stage operation, and the other 50 percent take a little longer to get settled down. Brittany’s not out of the woods yet.”
McPherson suffered a serious setback just before she was scheduled to be released.
“We were heading home, a week after surgery, and then it started to go bad,” said Karen McPherson.
“Her blood pressure dropped to 40 over zero; she went into septic shock. She went blind. When she told me she was losing her eyesight, I was in shock myself. I couldn’t believe this was happening.”
The condition required another week of hospitalization before McPherson finally turned the corner.
Despite the uncertainty of her hockey future, Brittany’s parents agreed she could attend St. Mary’s. Shortly after Labor Day, it became clear that McPherson could not only play, but would compete.
St. Mary’s coach Frank Pagliuca said “you forget she’s only in 8th grade.
“You kind of sit back and wonder, ‘wow, think about what she’s gone through in such a short period of time, and for her to get back on the ice.’ It’s not an easy position, physically. You can’t hide from the puck. It’s a tribute to her work ethic and the remarkable job her physicians did to get her back to this point, and the support of her family.”
McPherson has also earned the admiration of her teammates. “She’s a tough kid, and we all know that and recognize that,” said Skinnion. “We appreciate how hard she works for the team. And she’s funny.”
McPherson’s recovery has also encouraged her to give back. She said she wants to raise both awareness and funds to fight the disease. She formed “Brittany’s Battle Buddies” to participate in the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America’s walk-a-thon fund-raiser at Boston Common on June 1, almost a year to the date of her surgery.
“A lot of people don’t really know about it,” she said. “If you’re walking down the street and see someone without an arm, you know they don’t have an arm. But you don’t know if someone has ulcerative colitis. It’s hidden. And a lot of people don’t talk about it, because it’s not a very romantic disease.”
Her parents are relieved to see their daughter once again playing the game she loves.
“There was so much doubt about how things were going to play out last year. It could have gone any number of ways,” Scott said. “Thankfully, it went in the direction it did, because of the courage she had, and her focus on getting better.”
“When St. Mary’s opened their season in early December, and we were in the stands, and she was out there warming up,” said Scott. “They played the national anthem, and to see her out there, healthy, it was emotional for all of us. I can’t even tell you how emotional it was.”
Then his wife added with a smile, “Her shutout against Winthrop was pretty good, too.”Brion O’Connor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.