Spine Community Shocked by Preston Phillips, M.D. Loss
Among the community of spine surgeons, neurosurgeons, affiliated healthcare providers, and members of the broader support network, there was a visceral shock when the news broke that Preston Phillips, M.D., one of this communities best, brightest, and most generous surgeons, was shot and killed in his own clinic, Warren Clinic on South Yale Avenue in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 1, 2022. Also shot were Stephanie Husen, M.D., Amanda Glenn, and William Love. The shooter was a deranged former patient.
It was also the 233rd mass shooting—this year.
As tragic as this is, what is especially heart breaking is that Preston Phillips, whose prodigious talents and strengths would have made him a captain of industry was focused instead on healing, charity and a generosity of spirt and love (matched only by the sheer size of the man) that embraced Tulsa, Oklahoma and patients from less developed corners of the world.
We Celebrate the Life of Preston Phillips
Preston Phillips was born in 1963 into a family that would eventually be 9 children. He grew up in both Saginaw, Michigan and Atlanta, Georgia. His brother, Phil, who is a partner in the Detroit law firm of Foley & Lardner LLP, recalls entering Emory University after his older brother Preston. "In four years at Emory Preston graduated with a bachelor's degree in theology, a bachelor's degree in chemistry and a master's in organic chemistry. So, when I got to Emory and they said, 'You're Preston Phillips' brother.' I said, 'I'm here for one degree. I am not Preston.' I think he studied more in high school than I probably did in law school. I mean, he was just off the charts.”
After Emory, Dr. Phillips was accepted to Harvard Medical School and graduated with honors in 1992. He also completed fellowships at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and Boston's Children's Hospital. Along the way his interest in spinal surgery, joint reconstruction and fracture treatment developed.
He then did a four-year residency at Yale medical school focusing on orthopedic surgery returning later to Harvard for a one-year fellowship in spinal surgery. From 1998 to 2005, he was on staff at Swedish Medical Center with Seattle Orthopedics.
Edward K Rodriguez M.D., Chief, Department of Orthopaedics at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, told a Boston TV station that Dr. Phillips, "Was an exemplary surgeon and individual who represented all that is best in Orthopedics. He was always devoted to his patients and a remarkable role model for residents and fellows. He will be very much missed by everyone who knew and worked with him.”
At the time of his death, Dr. Phillips had been a physician and surgeon for 30 years.
Dr. Phillip’s Influence in the Profession and Beyond
Dr. Phillips didn't leave his work of healing in the operating room. He was a Fellow of the American Orthopedic Association(AOA), Scoliosis Research Society (SRS) and American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). He was a member of the J. Robert Gladden Orthopaedic Society (JRGOS), working to increase diversity within the orthopedic profession.
The Society issued a statement noting: "It is with extreme sadness that we report that we have lost one of our own JRGOS members due to gun violence. Dr. Preston J. Phillips, a revered Orthopaedic Surgeon at St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was senselessly gunned down along with his PA, a nurse, and a patient on June 1, 2022. The community of Black orthopaedic surgeons is small, and Dr. Phillips was a friend, mentor, and colleague to many in our organization."
Dr. Phillips was also active a board member for Tulsa's John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation in the Greenwood District, which works within the community to change the nature of Tulsa's relationship with its tumultuous past of racial violence surrounding the Tulsa Race Massacre.
At the Franklin Center, he chaired its scholarship committee, recruiting fellow members of his fraternity for Black professionals, called Grand Boule of the Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity (Epsilon Iota), to review applications, nominate students for awards and mentor the winners through post-secondary education.
He also looked beyond his immediate environment and devoted time and money to go to Togo, Africa, for the World Development Foundation with fellow Saint Francis physician, Komi Folley, M.D., an internist. Together they helped build clinics and hospitals, practice medicine and bring supplies.
In fact, Dr. Phillips donated several containers of prosthetics for knee replacement for the surgical team.
The mother of a little girl who was a Phillips’ patient in Tulsa, said when Phillips got back from one of those mission trips, he showed them a video "where all of these kids were dancing and showing him how to dance. He was so proud. What an incredible man, whose heart was for helping others.”
"The man loved people," said another acquaintance. "We can all glean that from Dr. Phillips. Let's love each other."
If that wasn't enough, he was also an emeritus board member of Saint Francis Health System in Tulsa.
Preston Phillip’s Early Life
Dr. Phillips came from very modest circumstances.
In a 2020 podcast interview, brother Phil said the family first lived in Atlanta and later moved to Saginaw, Michigan, in the 1950's. A place where southern Black immigrants could strive for a middle-class life in the auto industry. Of the nine siblings, half were born in Atlanta and the other half in Saginaw.
Family life, said Phil, was all important. "We didn't actually even realize how poor we were, frankly, because so were the folks next door and across the street, and around the corner."
The nine siblings, of which four were boys, shared three bedrooms, one bathroom. "It would be a stretch to say the house was 800 square feet."
By the time Preston was a teen-ager, the family was split up. Two brothers and one sister went to stay with the oldest brother in Atlanta. Preston succeeded in getting into Emory, where Phil says, he did incredibly well. "I mean, let's put it this way, I've met a lot of successful people in my career, in my life, lawyers, doctors. I've never seen a resume [like that].
"And so, this is this poor guy from Saginaw who used to push carts at K-Mart during the summer. So, talk about motivation, right, as to what you can accomplish for somebody growing up in the projects."
Remembering Dr. Preston Phillips, M.D.
The people who knew Dr. Phillips best, like his friend Sandy Thompson, remember him as a "true gentleman" who never failed "to look you in the eye and give you a bright, genuine smile and warm greeting."
Phil Brewer, a friend from the days of the Yale residency, wrote that he and Preston, "shared a love of jazz and frequently went to a small jazz club in New Haven to listen to live music. Preston introduced me to the music of Marion Meadows, a New Haven native. He was an impressive man, both physically and intellectually. He was selected as a White House fellow before going to medical school. He was one of the very few Black orthopedic surgeons in the country.”
Allyson Cady, a Certified Surgical Technologist (CST) at Saint Francis Health System wrote on Facebook: “This man was the most amazing man I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet and work with. His hugs were strong and warm. As was his heart. I hugged him two times yesterday, not knowing those would be the last hugs I’d ever get. When I was pregnant with my son, he called me ‘Pasta Sauce,’ referring to Prego 😂! He would say ‘We can’t shoot x-rays yet until Pasta Sauce gets behind the shield!’ Oh, how it made me laugh 😂…He was so thoughtful and caring and I will miss him dearly."
He was a mountain of a man who gave up playing basketball to focus on his studies at Harvard. He didn't give up basketball entirely, becoming the team orthopedist for the WNBA's Tulsa team. He was so big, one device salesperson said he wore 3X or 4X size PPE.
Dr. Phillips is survived by his wife Melody, his immediate family and his broader family of healthcare providers in Tulsa, throughout the United States and around the world.
Too soon. Too tragic. Irreplaceable.
Please add your thoughts in the comment section below.