Double Teaming Disease
When tests revealed a career-threatening throat cancer diagnosis, Mary Greeley Medical Center physicians and Bill Fennelly devised a game plan for recovery, allowing him to focus on his team's and family's well-being.
Iowa State University women's basketball coach Bill Fennelly isn't known for keeping quiet. His tenacity and intensity breed success on and off the court-Iowa State overcame this year's preseason poll prediction of seventh place in the Big Twelve to finish second in the conference with a No. 4 NCAA Tournament seed and Sweet Sixteen appearance.
For the vocal, rambunctious coach, losing the ability to talk after a season of shouting from the sidelines is a familiar feeling. So a few years ago, when he ended the competition season without any voice at all, Fennelly wasn't surprised.
A few weeks after this particular season, however, his voice didn't return to normal. So Fennelly came to Mary Greeley Medical Center for some routine tests to find the underlying cause of his severely hoarse voice. The results revealed cancerous nodules lining his throat.
After his initial diagnosis, Fennelly received suggestions that he should travel to the Mayo Clinic for treatment, but to him that option was out of the question. He trusted the judgment and ability of Mary Greeley Medical Center physicians and appreciated the community support system he had built in Ames.
"I worked with Dr. (Terry) McGeeney, Dr. (Tom) Smith and Dr. (Reason) Ford, who were all very honest with me about what was going on," he says. "They explained the medical terminology in a way that a silly basketball coach could understand what was going on. If it's possible to have a great experience during something that nobody wants to go through, I'd say my experience was phenomenal."
Even before his procedures, Fennelly had experienced Mary Greeley Medical Center's services with players' injuries. He says his past experiences made him feel at ease going into his throat procedures. "Ames is fortunate to have a quality hospital facility," he says. "It's good to know that we have such a well-respected place in a smaller town that has the tools to take care of our health."
Fennelly's wife, Deb, who describes his coaching style as "loud and demonstrative," was surprised by her husband's throat cancer diagnosis. Although she was concerned, Deb says she never felt panicked by the situation. "We liked the doctors so much and we trusted them to get everything under control," she says. "We have too many other things in life to worry about to not trust our doctors."
Fennelly underwent two exploratory procedures that left him without the ability to talk for two weeks. Luckily for the coach and his team, the procedure took place during the offseason, allowing him to recover without compromising his job performance.
"The cancer wasn't life-threatening, but my voice and my ability to communicate are critical to my job, so that scared me even more," he says. "I'm vocal, passionate and emotionally attached to my players. Thinking about how that could impact my career path and how I influence my players-that's just nerve-wracking."
Maintaining His Mantra
Eventually Fennelly regained the use of his voice. His assistant coaches made signs for him to use in lieu of shouting at practice, but despite toning back the use of his voice, his coaching attitude never faltered.
"When he overuses his voice and gets worked up I get on his case about saving his voice," Deb says, "but a lot of times he disregards me. He's invested in molding young women for the rest of their lives. It's not just about what goes on with basketball; everything he teaches them applies to life."
When the basketball team practiced in Iowa State's Forker and State gyms, team managers set up speakers around the court each day and Fennelly talked into a microphone to protect his voice. The new Iowa State University Basketball Complex boasts a speaker system hooked up to a headset for easier use.
"The new facility has really improved the quality of life of our players and staff," Fennelly says. "The community really supports our commitment to excellence. The updated technology allows me to wear a headset to save my voice during practice, but I look like a telephone operator."
Other than the addition of voice-enhancing equipment, Fennelly's coaching style hasn't changed. He continues to maintain relationships with the press but monitors the use of voice off the court. He refuses to hold back in communicating with players and is still renowned for his strong presence on the sidelines.
"People who don't know him just see him yell and scream from the sidelines at games," Deb says. "They mistake that intensity for something it's not. He's passionate about the game and about the success of his players on and off the court. We love this group like we love our sons; they're like our daughters."
A Fennelly Family Affair
The Fennelly name was well-known at Mary Greeley Medical Center long before the coach became a patient. Deb has been volunteering for years with the medical center, an endeavor that her husband says suits her personality, work ethic and expectations from the community.
"Her schedule is worse than mine," Fennelly says. "She works hard, and when she starts something, she wants it to be done right. She's not afraid to do the work that a lot of people may avoid. She wants to make every event a positive one; it's in her personality."
Deb's activities at the medical center range from coordinating the creation and delivery of Birthways newborn hats to working in the gift shop to serving on the foundation board. She also volunteers with other organizations throughout Ames, something she says is important to do for a community that continually supports her husband and family.
"I'm very social and I love that I get to work with my friends," Deb says. "The hospital is a great place to volunteer, because a lot of people here need our help. But the great thing about living in a college community is that everywhere you look there are opportunities to support the community; there are plenty of ways to give back."
Fennelly and his wife couldn't have struck a better balance between work, family and community. The three-time Naismith Coach of the Year finalist and two-time WBCA District 5 Coach of the Year was awarded a lifetime contract by Iowa State President Gregory Geoffroy and Director of Athletics Jamie Pollard following a successful 2006-07 season. He embraced the opportunity to make the lifetime commitment to the Iowa State women's basketball program as well as the Ames community.
"I'm in a profession where oftentimes you don't get to pick where you live," Fennelly says. "Deb and I are originally from Iowa, so we knew about the Midwest community. Our boys were in the fifth and first grade when the opportunity came up to come to Ames so we jumped at the chance to be in a place close to family with such a great quality of life."
Between the Fennellys and the Ames community, it's tough to tell who's benefitted more from his career move. Since his arrival the women's basketball home game attendance average has grown from 733 to more than 9,600 fans per game, ranking third place nationally in both 2009 and 2010. During the 2009-10 season, Fennelly led the Iowa State women to a 25-8 overall record (11-5 in the Big Twelve) and an NCAA Sweet Sixteen appearance, finishing the season just two games shy of his 500th career win.
"We've enjoyed the past 15 years in Ames and we couldn't have found a better place for our boys to grow up," Fennelly says. "The quality of life in this community is just so great. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and Ames couldn't have done a better job helping us raise our boys."