The Wapahani girls basketball team did not have a good practice on Oct. 31. The Raiders’ focus was elsewhere, and it showed in the careless errors on the court. Official practices had only begun a few days earlier, but the problems were not simply caused by early-season rust.
Sophomore post player Hanna Pfleeger had gone to the hospital that morning for a routine gall bladder removal surgery. By practice time that afternoon, clues had begun to emerge that Pfleeger had run into complications, something that was sure to distract her teammates that remained in the gym.
Word travels fast in the Selma community, so some updates had reached the school. And Pfleeger’s best friend, teammate Jenna Estep, had missed practice to be with Pfleeger in the hospital, an indication to teammates that something was amiss. Some teammates had even seen a clearly-emotional Estep leaving the locker room to head to the hospital, further evidence there was trouble.
It was only later that teammates would discover exactly how serious Pfleeger’s complications had been. Even her family didn’t fully grasp how close she had been to death until after she came out of her final surgery and had survived the ordeal.
Pfleeger, 16, has since gone beyond surviving. She has recovered so well that she is already back on the court, a full participant with her team. Wapahani will play against Frankton at 7:30 p.m. today in the Class 2A Shenandoah Sectional, and Pfleeger will be dressed and ready to play.
Pfleeger has been back in game action since Jan. 18, when she played in a consolation game of the Delaware County Tournament against Wes-Del.
“I loved it, but I was also scared,” Pfleeger said. “I was excited to be back, I missed it. Because I didn’t know, when I was in the hospital I didn’t know how long I was going to be out. And everybody was so excited. … Everybody was so shocked when I went out on the court for the first time, they were so scared. My mom was on the edge of her seat when I first started”
She has not seen significant minutes at the varsity level, averaging 0.8 points and 1.2 rebounds in five games. To coach Terry Bales, though, Pfleeger’s return this season will be valuable in preparing her for the increased role she will have on the team during her junior and senior seasons.
But Pfleeger is still part of the 2013-14 squad, one that has gone 13-6 during the regular season. The Raiders have two seniors, Lindi Thomas and Hanna Rose, who are double-figure scorers.
Those seniors have mixed with a group of underclassmen to pace the team to a winning season. It’s a season that’s been anticipated by the older and younger players alike. And that group will have Pfleeger in its midst when it pursues the school’s first sectional championship since 1999.
“That is one of the things I was looking forward to,” Estep said. “Going through any of the championships with her. Because all through middle school and everything else, we have been through all those championships together. And just knowing that she’ll actually be here and be dressed for our games, I really appreciated the fact that she could actually dress and Coach Bales let her come back and be a part of the team like before.”
Pfleeger had been experiencing pain in the months leading up to her surgery.Her mother had been through a gall bladder removal herself, and her daughter’s symptoms sounded familiar. Pfleeger was noticing pain in the upper left portion of her stomach. She had sharp pains when she ate certain foods.
It was initially not considered an urgent priority, but the pain intensified so much that her mother, Missy Davis, eventually took her to the hospital.
There it was discovered that it would be best to remove the gall bladder.
Davis remembers receiving several updates from doctors and nurses after surgery began. First she was told her daughter’s gall bladder had been successfully removed, but there was some internal bleeding and more testing was needed. She received a few other scattered updates, and Pfleeger was moved at times to various wings depending on her treatment needs. Eventually, her mother heard the complications had been successfully overcome.
Then Davis received a call, informing her that her daughter’s condition had taken a sudden turn for the worse. She was told to follow a hospital employee to radiology. Davis initially sat in a room by herself, praying for her daughter, uncertain of the severity of Pfleeger’s condition. Pfleeger’s father, Michael Pfleeger, was on his way to the room.
A CT scan revealed that an instrument used in the initial surgery had nicked Hanna Pfleeger’s aorta. The aorta is the body’s largest artery, and it distributes blood to other arteries.
Davis remembers the doctor who had performed the initial surgery being emotionally affected by the ordeal. So he was removing himself from the surgery, and one of his associates would be among the doctors handling the corrective measures. That second doctor took Hanna Pfleeger’s parents to see her for a brief time before beginning the second set of surgeries she would receive.
“We didn’t pretty much know, but when we were seeing her, when he was telling us this, that we were actually telling her goodbye. Because she was that close to being dead,” Davis said.
At the time, Davis thought the chaplain in her presence at the time was simply making normal rounds. She later learned his presence was in case of the worst.
For the next 90 minutes, Davis was still praying. By then she had created a prayer network that meant people in Selma and far beyond were joining her in prayer. Eventually, an update came, the repair had been successful, though the doctors didn’t like the way it looked.
Davis laughs as she recounts the cosmetic concerns. A final procedure made the repairs appear to the doctors’ liking. The various procedures, though, had taken their toll on Hanna Pfleeger.
She stayed in the hospital for 11 days to recover. She had received several pints of blood, and was swollen from the fluids she received. She was often in pain, and was frequently tired. Simple movement was a chore that often brought intense pain.
As she regained her faculties, she learned just how difficult her ordeal had been. She began to realize she had been close to death, that her parents had seen her in such a perilous state. She remembers getting a hug from both of her parents, then the trio crying in a circle.
“I just bawled my eyes out,” Hanna Pfleeger said. “… I was terrified, to be honest.”
Her focus turned to recovery, with her first goal being to make a scheduled family trip to Georgia to see her brother Kodi Pfleeger graduate from National Guard training. Shortly after getting discharged from the hospital, she made the trip and saw her brother graduate. Kodi Pfleeger was happy to provide his sister with a recovery goal.
Once he saw his sister fulfill that immediate goal, Kodi Pfleeger believes Hanna Pfleeger needed a new goal. He believes getting back on the basketball court took over. He had seen her passion for the sport before.
“She used to play softball and volleyball,” Kodi Pfleeger said. “She tried volleyball her sixth grade year, and didn’t like it. She just played basketball. She’s been playing it forever and she loves it. This is what, I think, her sport is now.”
Hanna Pfleeger was eager to get back out on the court, but admits there was fear as well. After being discharged from the hospital, she had no particular rehab regimen. She simply had to wait for her body to recover to allow her to play basketball.
Her teammates shared that fear. Hanna Pfleeger has a large, narrow scar running up her stomach as a result of the surgeries. She also has a smaller scar from the original gall bladder surgery.
When she returned to the court, teammates were nervous to guard her. But Hanna Pfleeger has gotten past her own fears, and as her teammates noticed her confidence, they felt better about including her in practices as well. Now she said practice is completely normal, a sentiment Rose shares.
“Usually our practices are pretty physical. We’re all good friends, so we get rough-and-tough with everyone,” Rose said. “But we knew with Pfleeger, we couldn’t be shoving, especially in the stomach area and going in for the fouls and everything. So we had to leery with that at the beginning. But now she’s back in, and we honestly don’t think. We’re so used to her now back in, that it’s just routine, going in and fouling.”
As Hanna Pfleeger conducts her interview with a reporter in the Wapahani gym, basketballs can be heard bouncing around her as her teammates begin practicing. It’s a Friday afternoon, and the Raiders are preparing for one final regular-season game before sectionals.
Eventually, she has completed her various media obligations. She heads toward the center of the gym and returns to practice.