Five Years After Open-Heart Surgery, Jeff Green Still Incredibly Thankful
By John Denton
Jan. 9, 2017
LOS ANGELES – Orlando Magic forward Jeff Green celebrated his 30th birthday back on Aug. 28, but that didn’t stop him from going out on Monday and finding a bakery so he could bite into a cupcake complete with a celebratory candle.
``It’s my other birthday,’’ Green said in all seriousness. ``It’s my second birthday.’’
Green is in a cheery mood today – January 9 – because it is the five-year anniversary of him needing open-heart surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm that threated not only his NBA career, but also his life. Green, who is in his first season with the Magic, was left with a nine-inch scar down his chest that starts just below the windpipe and trails down to his mid-ribcage.
The healed-over wound is about as thick as one of the laces on his Brand Jordan basketball shoes, and he’s beyond staring at it for hours the way he once would. But, even now, Green proudly wears the scar like a badge of honor because it reminds him of how fortunate he is to still be alive and doing what he loves playing in the NBA.
``It’s been five years and it’s totally a blessing,’’ said Green, whose Magic (16-23) had Monday off before returning to practice on Tuesday and playing the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday. ``To be able to sit here and say that, to still be here in the NBA after heart surgery, it’s a real blessing.
``With what I’ve gone through, that’s why I try to not let a lot of stuff stress me out,’’ added Green, who has been traded three times in his nine-year NBA career and has played for five NBA franchises. ``I understand what a blessing it is to play this game, knowing the circumstances that I had to go through. A lot of us take the game for granted, but that’s not the case for me. I’m truly humbled by the game and when I say it, I mean it. I’m very blessed to still be able to put on this NBA uniform and do something that I love. How many ever years that I’ve got left, I’ll cherish every bit of it.’’
Green’s appreciation for basketball – and for life – changed forever in December of 2011 when he was red-flagged by doctors during a routine physical after signing a one-year, $9 million contract with the Boston Celtics. Boston had acquired Green in a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder just months earlier, seeing the multi-talented 6-foot-9, 235-pound forward as the eventual successor to Paul Pierce.
More tests were run and doctors ultimately determined that Green – who was just 25 years old at the time – had a serious heart condition that could kill him if not addressed. When Dr. Lars Svensson told him that there was danger of the aneurysm near his heart rupturing – something that would result in almost immediate death – Green sat in silence for some 90 minutes, unable to utter a word to anyone.
He knows now that the findings from the routine physical most likely saved his life. It was only after Green was assured that he would live did he even consider whether he’d ever be able to play basketball again – something he was told was possible if all went well with the surgery.
He was informed he’d be cut all the way down his sternum, his chest would be split wide-open and his heart would be stopped for more than an hour – shocking stuff for anyone to hear, much less a 25-year-old who thought himself to be in tip-top physical condition – Dr. Svensson ultimately repaired the aneurysm near where the four main values unite in the heart.
``After the surgery, the doctors told me that the tissue (around the heart) had started to tear a little bit. So it was great timing and God took care of me,’’ said Green, still very much in amazement five years later.
``I can sit here today and say I wasn’t scared, but I was scared. But I wasn’t that nervous. The doctors that I had, they made me feel very comfortable with the condition that I had,’’ Green recalled. ``I was worried, but I had good friends around me to calm my nerves and take it off my mind. I didn’t sleep the night before the surgery, so we just stayed up playing video games and when they told me it was time to go, it was time to go. But going through something like that makes you grow up fast.’’
Following the surgery, which included his chest being closed back together with stainless steel wires, Green couldn’t talk and couldn’t move anything other than his head and toes. And he had no appetite for four days. He ran for the first time four months later, but he missed the entire 2011-12 NBA season.
Time eventually healed Green’s wounds, namely the nine-inch gash down the center of his chest. Unlike some who might have hidden the scar in shame, Green didn’t mind showing it off after getting back around his Celtics teammates before the 2012-13 season.
``I see it every day,’’ Green said of the scar on his chest. ``At this point, five years removed, it is a reminder to what I’ve been through. A year removed, two years removed, every time I took off my shirt or when I glanced in the mirror, it took me back to that moment (of having heart surgery.)
``But I appreciate the scar,’’ he added. ``Talk to (Celtics strength and conditioning coach) Bryan Doo, every lift that I did (that first season back) it was shirt off. I never hated or shied away from showing it off. My (former Celtics’) teammates got to the point where they were mad at me because I showed it off so much. So that scar is something I really appreciate.’’
SHARING HIS STORY
Generally quiet, but forceful when he does speak up, Green has shared the story of his recovery from heart surgery with just a few of his Magic teammates. One of them is his closest friend on the team, center Bismack Biyombo, whom he happens to share a birthday with on Aug. 28.
Biyombo, who got to the NBA after an impoverished childhood in the Democratic Republic of Congo, was a NBA rookie when he first heard about Green’s heart scare and he was inspired by the forward’s resilience. He said knowing more of the details now has given him a better appreciation of the person that Green is.
``Back then, I saw him as an inspiration to go through what he did and make it back to the NBA,’’ Biyombo said of Green, who wears a small pad over the center of his chest during games and practices, but otherwise has no limitations because of his repaired heart. ``But to get to know him as a person beyond basketball, I see what he’s all about. He had a big challenge – a life-or-death challenge – and to overcome that it made him appreciate life more. I’m just glad to get to know him and be good friends with him.’’
After having surgery and gaining notoriety for working his way back to the NBA, Green gained dozens of other friends who had endured similar traumas. He said, even today, that he still receives letters and he’s approached by people who have gone through heart surgeries just like his. Those conversations and the work that he did with the American Heart Association helped him deal with his scars – both the one on his chest and the mental ones left behind by the life-threatening malady.
``It’s weird when you go through something like that, people who have been through it too, they find you,’’ Green said. ``It’s definitely a humbling moment talking to kids who are 5 years old who have had heart surgery. It’s kind of like the brotherhood in the NBA, but it’s people who had to go through heart surgery together. It’s a little group that we have. It’s a tough thing that we had, but it’s good to share your stories with people who understand.’’
ANOTHER BIRTHDAY TO CELEBRATE
In a matter of weeks, Green will be celebrating another birthday of a completely different kind. His fiancé, Stephanie, is due to have the couple’s first child on Feb. 20 and he can hardly wait.
Stephanie, a Miami native, and Jeff wanted to know the sex of their child, and the dad-to-be’s face lights up and practically glows when the topic turns to the impending birth of his daughter.
Green, who is averaging 9.2 points and 2.8 rebounds in 38 games this season with the Magic, knows that experiencing the miracle of childbirth likely wouldn’t have happened without his heart ailment being discovered by doctors in December of 2011. Far too many NBA players and former greats, such as Moses Malone, Orlando native Darryl Dawkins, Anthony Mason, Jack Haley, Reggie Lewis, Robert Traylor and Jason Collier, died unexpectedly of heart-related ailments.
Had fate and modern medicine not been there to intervene and save him, Green might have been added to that list of basketball players to die because of a faulty heart. Instead of becoming a statistic, he’s set to become a father. Quite frankly, does it get anymore heart-warming than that?
``I’m going to be a dad in a couple of weeks and by the grace of God, he’s allowing me to see this moment and I can’t wait,’’ a giddy Green said. ``I think about it every day. My fiancé and I have pillow talk about it every day, all day. I rub her belly, I’m blessed and I can’t wait for my little princess to get here.’’
Someday, Green promised, he’ll sit his daughter down, show her the scar on his chest and tell her story of how her father had to overcome the most daunting obstacle in his life. Maybe, just maybe, Green said the two of them will eat celebratory cupcakes together on January 9, otherwise known as dad’s ``second birthday.’’
``Oh, she will know about it for sure,’’ Green said of sharing his story. ``They grow up wanting to know your parents’ history and what you had to overcome, so I will tell her. She is going to go through things in life where she is going to struggle and have to overcome, but I have a story to tell her. I overcame a big struggle and was able to play in the most prestigious league in the world – something that kids dream of – and play for a long time. So I’ll definitely share my story with her.’’
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