Andover's Brian Russell knows better than most the twists and turns life can take.

The Phillips Academy junior looked the picture of health on Dec. 8, 2007 when he erupted for a career-high 21 points for the Big Blue against Kimball Union.

Four days later he was at Children's Hospital Boston undergoing his second open-heart surgery in nine months.

"It felt pretty good to (play well in my final game)," he said. "It would have felt better if we had won, but it was good to go out and play one more time."


A healthy child growing up, Russell's health problems started in the seventh grade. After an illness, it was found that bacteria had gotten into his bloodstream and landed in his heart.

He was diagnosed with a "regurgitation" in one of the valves in his heart. This results in small amounts of blood leaking back through the valve.

"It wasn't an emergency," said his mother, Denise Russell. "The major concern is to preserve his ventricle and keep it healthy for life. You want to time (the surgery) so you put it off as long as you can, but do it soon enough that there is no damage to the heart."

Russell began a routine of seeing the doctor every six months to check on the status of his heart.

During that time, Russell continued to excel in sports. He made the decision to follow his brother Steve to Phillips and quickly stood out at the JV level for the Big Blue in soccer and basketball.

But, during a routine check-up in March 2007, it was determined that the valve had finally gotten to a point that it had to be taken care of.

"They said they had to fix it," Russell said. "It was about the (active) lifestyle I wanted to live, and they wanted to make sure nothing could go wrong. At first I was nervous. But I knew everything was going to work out for the best. They went in and built up the valve with some of the outer lining of my heart."

After the procedure, Russell spent five days in the hospital. He then could not leave the house for a week because of the increased risk of illness due to his weakened immune system. He was also barred from contact sports for a month due to the risk of a stitch coming loose in his sternum, which had to be broken during the surgery.

He had a second surgery six weeks later, this time on his left knee due to overtraining. He had scar tissue removed and small holes drilled in his bone to help regeneration.

"It was crazy," he said. "It was a lot all at once. ... It was pretty frustrating, but my siblings were at home and we played a lot of board games and video games. And I read a lot."

After two months of rehab on his knee, Russell was allowed to go back into full training for the upcoming sports season, often with the help of his sister Jenn, a University of North Carolina lacrosse player.

"She helps me a lot with running," he said. "I try to run about two miles a day and she had to get in shape, too. We played basketball against each other a lot and with my other sister (Megan, a former Brooks athlete) and brother (Steve)."

The workouts paid off, as Russell put together a breakout season on the soccer team. At the end of the season the fullback was voted co-captain for the 2008 season.

He then turned his attention to basketball. The 6-footer earned a starting job for the rebuilding Big Blue, playing both guard positions and small forward.

He opened the season with 16 points against Cushing. He had only five points against Tilton, but then tallied 21 against Kimball Union.

"He's a very creative player," said Phillips coach Leon Modeste. "He can create off the dribble and score from the outside. And he's a hard-nosed kid that will give you all he can every time."

But the season came to a halt after the Kimball game when it was discovered that the procedure in March had not been a total success.

"They found out the surgery didn't work as well as it could," he said. "They had to fix the valve again so it was the best possible situation.

"It was frustrating because it looked like I would see a lot of playing time this season. But you have to accept what you can't change."

It also caused concern for his family.

"When it's open heart surgery and he was only 16, nothing is minor," said Denise Russell. "You have to keep in mind that you are doing what you have to keep him healthy. And the doctors have followed him carefully, and that makes you feel better."

The Phillips team also rallied around their teammate, buying him a jersey of his favorite Red Sox player: Manny Ramirez.

"They have embraced him and have been very supportive," said Modeste. "He is a very courageous kid and we know he will bounce back from this."

Russell is now back in the recovery process, once again barred from physical activity. But he has rejoined the basketball team as a manager and de facto assistant coach.

"I'm still at all the practices and all the games," he said. "I want to be part of the team because I love basketball. Hopefully soon I can throw a few passes and set a few picks."

A member of Indian Ridge Golf Club, he is planning to try out for the golf team in the spring. Then it will be back to training for soccer.

"Everything should be fine now," said Denise Russell, an English teacher at the Doherty Middle School. "He should be healthy. It's his positive attitude that has helped. I don't think he thought for a second he wouldn't get back to where he was."

The Brian Russell File

Age: 17

Sports: Soccer/basketball

Field: Stood out as a back on the soccer team. Earned job as starting guard on the basketball team, scoring a combined 42 points in his first three games of the season.

Health: Diagnosed with regurgitation in a valve in his heart in the seventh grade. Had open heart surgery to repair it last March, then again in December. He also had knee surgery in April.

Family: Sister Jenn started last year as a freshman lacrosse player at North Carolina. Brother Steve played baseball, hockey and soccer at Phillips while sister Megan played basketball at Brooks. Mother is Denise and father is Tom.

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