Colleagues and friends of Preston J. Phillips, MD, FAAOS, remember him as an individual whose imposing 6’5” frame belied the gentle soul of a man who exuded compassion in the way he cared for his patients and extended a helping hand to many.
Dr. Phillips, 59, was killed June 1, when a man he had been treating as a patient entered the Warren Clinic Orthopedic Surgery and Sports Medicine at Saint Francis Hospital in Tulsa, Okla., and shot him, along with Stephanie J. Husen, DO; staff member Amanda Glenn; and William Love, who was accompanying his wife, a patient.
Dr. Phillips grew up in Michigan and then Atlanta. He graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1990, followed by residency at Yale New Haven Hospital, then completed two fellowships at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Dr. Phillips had advanced degrees in organic chemistry and pharmacology, as well as theology from Emory University. In addition to his practice at Saint Francis, he served as team physician for the Tulsa Shock of the WNBA during its time of operation. His practice focus was spine surgery, as well as joint reconstruction and trauma.
Dr. Phillips left an undeniable mark on the orthopaedic community. His colleagues and friends remember him fondly.
“Dr. Phillips is missed every day since this senseless tragedy,” said Mark Schwartz, DO, chair of the Saint Francis orthopaedics department. “He had an incredibly powerful presence with his size but was really just a big teddy bear. He had a deep, bellowing laugh that sounded like Santa Claus. It could be heard daily throughout our clinic and around the operating room. He was a mentor to me as I started my practice. We would have breakfast or lunch together at least once or twice a week in the doctors lounge and would sit and discuss work, cases, but mostly just life. He was like a father figure to many around him. He was the leader of our group and a strong proponent for those around him. His patients loved him—although not always his wait times, but this was due to him spending as much time with every single patient as they needed. He will be dearly missed by his patients, staff, colleagues, family, and friends.”
“Dr. Phillips was an incredible role model for us all,” said Wayne A. Johnson, MD, FAAOS, FACS, who practices in Lawton, Okla., and first met Dr. Phillips in 2005 at a J. Robert Gladden Orthopaedic Society (JRGOS) luncheon at an AAOS Annual Meeting. “After noting that we were both practicing orthopaedic surgeons in Oklahoma, we became friends rather quickly, because he had a way of making everyone feel like they were his best friend,” Dr. Johnson recalled. “I respected and admired him as a gifted and respected orthopaedic surgeon and as a leader in the Oklahoma and African American community. I frequently reached out to him for advice on professional matters, and I trusted his wise opinions and recommendations. Although we were contemporaries, he was a friend and role model for me. He had a way of ensuring you mattered, that you were valued. He was passionate about music and the saxophone—as well as mentorship and education—and he exemplified leadership and professionalism, compassion, and generosity.”
Dr. Phillips was recalled as a man for whom service was a reflex, whether in the care of his patients or in his many volunteer endeavors in professional organizations and charitable causes.
“Dr. Phillips was an intelligent and naturally gifted leader who lived by the saying, ‘If you want something done, give it to a busy person,’” Dr. Johnson said. This ethos extended to his extensive volunteer activity and professional affiliations, including as a Fellow of the Academy, the American Orthopaedic Association, and the Scoliosis Research Foundation and as an active member of JRGOS, the multicultural organization representing the community of African American orthopaedic surgeons.
Among that community, the loss of Dr. Phillips brought particular sorrow. According to Dr. Johnson, Dr. Phillips was one of only three African Americans practicing orthopaedic surgery in Oklahoma; the two remaining are Dr. Johnson and Darnell Blackmon, MD, FAAOS, also of Tulsa. “The community of Black orthopaedic surgeons is small, and Dr. Phillips was a friend, mentor, and colleague to many in our organization,” a statement from the Gladden Society read. Augustus A. White III, MD, PhD, FAAOS, a founding member of JRGOS, said, “Dr. Phillips was an icon and will be sorely missed.”
Dr. Phillips contributed his time to a number of causes related to the history and advancement of African American culture. He served as scholarship chair on the board of the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation, which seeks to promote “a hopeful future of reconciliation and cooperation for Tulsa and the nation” and memorializes the “Black Wall Street” massacre, a racist terrorist attack on an entire African American community in Tulsa in 1921. In addition to that work, Dr. Phillips was a longtime active member of the Grand Boulé of the Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity (Epsilon Iota), a fraternity for Black professionals, and chaired its Scholarship Committee.
“Dr. Phillips was a lifelong advocate for student success and worked tirelessly to develop the scholarship fund that Epsilon Iota Boulé of Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity has now renamed in his honor,” a statement from the Phillips family said.
His service to humanity extended beyond the borders of Oklahoma and the United States, with mission trips to Togo, Africa, in the company of Komi S. Folly, MD, an internal medicine physician at Saint Francis, and others, with the Light in the World Development Organization. There, they helped “build clinics and hospitals, practice medicine, and deliver supplies to those desperately in need,” the family said. Dr. Phillips had been planning to make another trip to Togo later in June. “‘Kind man’ is too weak, ‘is a good guy’ is too vague, ‘he likes to help people’ doesn’t fit,” as descriptors, Dr. Folly told the Harvard Crimson in an article commemorating Dr. Phillips. “It’s more than that.”
Current JRGOS President Lawrence Wells, MD, FAAOS, FAOA, FABOS, said the society is working to develop a funded traveling fellowship exchange in Dr. Phillips’ name, potentially involving surgeons from the United States and those from the west African countries he visited.
Dr. Phillips also provided his expertise to local underserved patients at volunteer medical clinics in Tulsa, Dr. Johnson said.
Alvin H. Crawford, MD, FAAOS, a retired surgeon, colleague of Dr. Phillips, and pioneer and trailblazer in orthopaedics, recalled a trip he took to Tulsa at the behest of Dr. Phillips. Dr. Crawford was to speak at a benefit with the Franklin Center and Epsilon Iota Boulé to enhance educational opportunities for young African American males through scholarship and mentorship.
“I’d always had an interest in the Franklin Center’s Black Wall Street exhibition, and Preston graciously agreed to personally connect me to the museum as my honorarium,” Dr. Crawford said. “Dr. Phillips was an extremely gracious host, knowledgeable about the museum which he assisted in supporting, and we spent from noon to dinner perusing the artifacts. We also used this segue to share our love of jazz saxophone. He was a gentle giant, warm, friendly, committed to the health and education of his fellow human being, and dedicated to assisting young males of color.”
Dr. Blackmon, Dr. Phillips’ colleague at Saint Francis, recalled, “Dr. Phillips was a great man. His commitment to education and scholarship was unwavering. He was involved in mission trips and was helping to construct a hospital in Africa. He inducted me several years ago into Sigma Pi Phi, with its mission of scholarship, mentorship, and career development for African American males. He was a dedicated father and husband who left all men aspiring to walk in his shoes. He was mild-tempered, kind, gentle, and sincere. We never know why God will take an angel from this earth, but I think in this case there may be greater work to be done elsewhere that only he could do. I will miss my friend, mentor, and confidante. However, his legacy will last for several lifetimes to come.”
Gary E. Friedlaender, MD, FAAOS, who oversaw Dr. Phillips during his residency at Yale, said, “Dr. Phillips was one of the most talented surgeons I’ve met. Yet this strong accolade is eclipsed by his incredible character—his warmth, kindness, compassion, generosity, commitment, and sense of duty to make a difference. And make a difference he certainly did. Our personal transition from mentor/mentee to friend and colleague happened very quickly and seamlessly. I can’t begin to count the many hugs, laughs, and serious conversations about what was wrong in the world we had and how he proposed to fix things. While words certainly mattered, he was a person of action, and few things he set his mind to change were left adrift. I, like all of you, am horrified, angry, and demolished, but mostly I am just plain sad. And I grieve for his wife, Melody, and his family, as well as for all of us. Our loss is enormous, but our memories are indelible.”
Steven O. Brown, DO, a pediatric orthopaedic surgeon at Saint Francis who on June 1 happened to be performing surgery in an OR not far from the clinic where the shooting occurred, spoke of the invaluable mentorship Dr. Phillips provided to him as he came on board at the hospital. “He was a wonderful, gentle, kind person with an infectious smile and a laugh that could be heard from the other end of the hospital,” Dr. Brown told AAOS Now.
Added Dr. Johnson: “I will miss walking and talking with Dr. Phillips or having lunch at a review course at an AAOS meeting or JRGOS luncheon. During those walks, I was able to appreciate how much he was respected and admired by our orthopaedic surgery colleagues who frequently stopped to speak with him. I will miss our discussions regarding the importance of volunteering to shape the future of our profession. I will miss seeing him and his family at Oklahoma City Thunder basketball games, where we had the opportunity to catch up and share family successes and community stories. I will miss speaking and texting during the holidays and discussing ways to improve diversity in our profession and expand the pipeline of underrepresented minorities in our profession. Dr. Phillips will be remembered by his family, friends, colleagues, medical professionals, the community, and the thousands of lives he has touched with his altruism, spirituality, and gifted hands.”
Dr. Phillips leaves behind his wife, Melody, and three children, Jarrett, Erin, and Elise, along with eight siblings. “He set a standard that inspired each of his children’s personal growth,” Melody Phillips said in the family statement. “Even with his great accomplishments, he did not expect them to fill his shoes. His only desire was that they try their hardest, do their best, and be good and honest people.”
Befitting the legacy of a surgeon, that statement concluded with a reference to his hands: “Preston’s hands said a lot about him. They were large—matching his 6-foot, 5-inch frame. At the same time, they were gentle, controlled by noticeably muscled forearms to perform intricate surgeries with precision. When he greeted you, he had an openness that you could see in his hands—palms up, arms open—that set you at ease and embraced you with his full attention. He loved life and lived it to its fullest.”
Dr. Phillips’ family has suggested that those wishing to honor his memory may make a donation to the Dr. Preston J. Phillips Scholarship Fund c/o Tulsa Community Foundation at www.tulsacf.org/drphillips.
Terry Stanton is the senior medical writer for AAOS Now. He can be reached at email@example.com.