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Don Owen: After beating West Nile virus, Jenna Fessler continues winning at Thomas More

Like any other college athlete, Jenna Fessler enjoys winning. She’s done plenty of that as a four-year starter for Thomas More’s volleyball team. A multi-skilled setter, Fessler has led the Saints to multiple conference championships and NCAA Tournament berths. She’s also helped Thomas More emerge as one of the elite NCAA Division III programs, with the Saints climbing as high as No. 5 in the AVCA national poll this season.

Obviously, Fessler knows all about winning. But her biggest victory isn’t against an opponent on the volleyball court. It’s not in the classroom, either, where the Beechwood High School graduate is an honor student.

No, Fessler’s most notable triumph occurred two years ago, when she beat a hideous, life-threatening illness — the West Nile virus.

AWAKENING FROM THE NIGHTMARE

She remembers waking up in the hospital and asking what day of the week it was, unaware she had been in a coma the previous four days. When told it was Sunday, Fessler’s response wasn’t what you might expect.

Thomas More’s Jenna Fessler attacks against Transylvania. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

“The only actual memory I have is asking my mom what day it was, and she said it was Sunday,” Fessler recalled, “and I asked, ‘Does that mean the volleyball team played this weekend?’ They were at a tournament in Bluffton, and that’s the first thing I was concerned about.”

That reply, however, reflects the competitive nature of Fessler, a self-proclaimed volleyball junkie who aspires to be a coach in the future. Thomas More head coach John Spinney, who has built the Saints volleyball program into a perennial powerhouse in Division III, can chuckle at that response today. But he knew the seriousness of his star setter’s condition at the time.

“Volleyball was just an ancillary thing, and we just wanted Jenna to be well again,” he said. “I didn’t know if she would ever play again. But volleyball wasn’t important in this case. I did some research on West Nile while this was going on with Jenna. One percent of the people [with West Nile virus] have these central nervous system issues, and there’s a percentage of that one percent that don’t make it.

“Our team was just concerned with her well-being and health. There were a couple of other kids in Destin [Florida] who had come down with the West Nile virus about that same time as Jenna, and neither one made it. Both of them were around her age, too. It was a frightening time for all of us. Volleyball is just a game. Jenna was in a coma. We were keeping her in our thoughts and prayers, and I can’t even imagine how her parents were feeling during that time.”

For those in a comatose condition, time comes to a complete halt. There’s no tomorrow. There’s nothing in the present. There’s only the past. It’s also suspended animation in a worst-case scenario for family and friends. It’s a time for praying, crying, worrying, and hoping. And, of course, remembering.

“It was horrifying because this was counter to anything Jenna had ever been,” said Karen Fessler, Jenna’s mother and the person who watched in terror as the initial stages of the encephalitis robbed her daughter of the ability to even recognize family members. “To see her in that state was painful and something that’s impossible to explain. I was there with her in the hospital the whole time, never left, hardly slept.

“There had been two other kids in the Destin area who had died recently because of the West Nile virus. Destin is the place where Jenna had been bitten. That’s when you realize how deadly this virus can be.”

The once-abstract concept of death suddenly materializes into a horrific specter, silently hovering in the intensive care unit. No one talks about the future. Some might discuss present-day silliness in jobs, sports or politics for a brief moment, but it’s just deflection technique. Words are spoken, but no one is really listening. All thoughts are on the loved one in the ICU. They recall the Christmas Eve celebrations, or the Thanksgiving dinners. They laugh about graduation day in high school.

Only the past brings any semblance of comfort, as the present is filled only with despair.

“Jenna had spinal meningitis and encephalitis, which is swelling of the brain,” Karen Fessler said. “There she was in the ICU, and we didn’t know what was going to happen. She had always been so healthy and into sports. She was a dedicated student, just a great kid. But there she is in a coma. As a parent, you’re just fearing the worst and absolutely helpless.”

For Jenna Fessler in 2016, just 20 years of age and battling the effects of the West Nile virus — encephalitis and meningitis — a recent trip to Florida had ignited her potential life-threatening situation. There was no guarantee of a tomorrow as she rested in her hospital bed. There was only the past.

‘I DIDN’T EVEN KNOW I’D BEEN BITTEN’

Destin is a city in northwest Florida, located in the state’s Panhandle. It’s known for Gulf of Mexico beaches, golf courses, and the Destin Harbor Boardwalk. It had also become an annual gathering place for Fessler’s family.

Thomas More head coach John Spinney gave an emotional speech on Senior Night and praised Jenna Fessler for her courage. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

“We go to Destin every year for a family reunion, been doing it as long as I can remember,” Jenna Fessler said. “It was the summer of 2016, near the end of July and right around my birthday. That’s when it happened. I didn’t even know I’d been bitten.”

While in Destin having an enjoyable time with family and friends, Fessler had been bitten by a mosquito and infected with the West Nile virus. The mosquito-transmitted virus usually produces only mild symptoms (fever, headaches) in most people. Others, however, can develop a life-threatening illness that includes inflammation of the spinal cord or brain.

Unaware she had been bitten, Jenna Fessler was about to become one of those people in the latter category. What began as a relaxing vacation with family would soon turn into a terrifying ordeal for Fessler, and a time of great anxiety for her family, friends and Thomas More teammates.

She recalls that everything was going great until the 12-hour drive home from Florida. That’s when the first symptoms finally appeared.

“I started to feel sick riding back home, had a headache, but I just blamed it on being car sick because it’s a long drive from Florida,” Fessler recalled. “But after we got home, I told my mom that my lower back was hurting. I’d never had any issues with my back, so this was out of the ordinary.”

At that time, Fessler was majoring in athletic training and had been assigned to help with the Thomas More football team. She ignored the back pain and headaches to begin work. “I was just starting my clinical rotation for the football team, and the next day I woke up feeling even worse,” she said. “I started having these muscle spasms down my leg. I could feel it all the way down to my ankle. My muscles would just spasm constantly.

“At first, they thought it was a pinched nerve in my lower back, and I decided to just push through it since volleyball was going to start in a week. I was given a steroid to help it and I would get an upset stomach, but that’s a common side effect of steroids. But I started getting these migraine headaches and I couldn’t eat. My hands were tingling, and I had neck pain, and I started getting these blurry spots in my vision.”

Multiple trips to the doctor and hospital followed the next two weeks. One diagnosis suggested strep throat — “Mom wasn’t happy with that diagnosis. She knew it wasn’t right,” Fessler recalled — while another simply called for treatment of migraines. Jenna Fessler, meanwhile, continued to feel the effects and began to sleep an inordinate amount. “I slept about 36 straight hours one time,” she recalled. “Mom woke me and had me go to the bathroom. I wasn’t really eating, either and had lost nine pounds in a week.

Jenna Fessler has recorded 1,136 assists this season and was named the ACAA’s Setter of the Year. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

“Mom kept telling me, ‘I know something else is wrong. I know my child, and this is more than migraines.’ At the hospital, they treated me for the migraines through an IV and sent me home once I showed I could eat some crackers. But it just kept getting worse and worse.”

Something was obviously wrong. And it wasn’t strep throat that had drained the star volleyball player’s energy. Nor was it just a case of migraines. That became terrifyingly obvious to the Fessler family during the 2016 Labor Day weekend.

‘SHE LOOKED AT ME IN TERROR. SHE DIDN’T KNOW ME’

While volleyball season had just started, Jenna Fessler’s focus was on getting healthy. She had kept in communication with Spinney about her condition, and Thomas More began preseason practices without its standout setter.

Fessler’s condition, however, only worsened during the next few days. “We went back to the hospital and they admitted me,” she said. “They did blood tests, a spinal tap, and all kinds of other tests. I was there four days and they sent me home, so I went back to school. About that time, maybe three days after I got out of the hospital, they left a message on my voicemail telling me the tests showed I had West Nile virus.

“I really didn’t know anything about it. I started doing some research on it, and the weird statistic was that person sitting next to me, the virus might not affect them at all. But in a very, very small percentage, it leads to meningitis and encephalitis. That’s what I had.”

Fessler continued going to school, but she was not practicing with the volleyball team. On a Tuesday, she felt something wasn’t right but nevertheless decided to attend classes. “Mom didn’t want me to go to school but I did. I probably shouldn’t have gone to school that day, because when I got home, I told Mom right then that something wasn’t right and went straight to bed.” she said. “The next day I wasn’t feeling well again, and Mom insisted I stay home. I tried to do homework with my mom’s help, but I ended up going to bed about 4:30.”

Later that night, Fessler’s mother decided to check on her ailing daughter. In retrospect, Karen Fessler’s decision likely saved her daughter’s life — but not before a terrifying episode occurred in the bedroom. “I was making Jenna sleep in my bed, so I could keep an eye on her,” Karen said. “I rolled over to touch her, and she pulled away and said, ‘Don’t touch me.’ I said, ‘Jenna, it’s Mom.’ But I could tell something was wrong, so I switched on the light and got up to go to the other side of the bed, so she could see me.

“I put my hand on her shoulder, her eyes popped open, and she looked at me. She looked right through me. She had no idea who I was. I kept saying, ‘Jenna, it’s Mom. Let’s get up.’ She ended up pushing me, kicking at me, and she looked at me in terror. She didn’t know me. At that point, I called 911 and the ambulance came and took her to the hospital. She kept yelling, ‘Mom! Mom!’ and was in this coma-like state, and they later said it was her brain beginning to shut down because of the swelling.”

Said Jenna Fessler of that evening: “I did not recognize my own mother. My brain was so swollen and there was so much trauma of the brain that I didn’t recognize my mom. Apparently, I was screaming and yelling to fend off my mom. I thought it was a stranger. I don’t remember it at all, but Mom has told me about that night.”

Jenna Fessler is escorted by her parents and other family members on Senior Night. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

Eventually, Fessler was diagnosed with Meningoencephalitis, a medical condition caused by the West Nile virus that simultaneously resembles both meningitis and encephalitis. In many cases, Meningoencephalitis is deadly. Fessler soon became comatose in the hospital, at times speaking incoherently and unaware of her situation. Fortunately, her mother had been close that evening.

“We found out much later that those two kids who had died of West Nile virus, both of them were alone when it happened,” Karen Fessler said. “I’m just thankful Jenna was home when it happened, and I was able to get help as quickly as possible.”

Four days after slipping into the coma, Fessler began receiving IV steroid treatments to battle the Meningoencephalitis. She slowly began to emerge from the coma and eventually was discharged from the hospital, though closely monitored for any recurring issues of the West Nile virus for the next year. With the support of family, friends and the coaches, players and administration at Thomas More, she later returned to school as a part-time student while recovering. While there would be no volleyball in 2016, Jenna Fessler was still part of the team.

THOMAS MORE’S SUPPORT SYSTEM DURING THE ORDEAL

Fessler’s Thomas More teammates wore her jersey number on their wrists as a tribute and a way to show support during matches. Spinney said they also kept in constant communication on road trips by sending photos of the team, a reminder she was still in their thoughts.

“We would take pictures of the tournaments we were playing in, and everyone put her number on their wrists, and we took pictures of that as well,” he said. “We were actively keeping Jenna in our thoughts and prayers, and documenting things for her so she felt part of it because we knew how much she loves volleyball.”

While Fessler recovered from the illness that fall, Thomas More posted a 21-10 record. The Saints advanced to the championship match of the Presidents’ Athletic Conference Tournament before dropping a four-set decision to Bethany (W.Va.) in the finale. The Saints accomplished all of this despite missing one of the top setters in the nation and arguably the best player in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference. Not to mention dealing with the emotional strain of Fessler’s battle with the West Nile virus.

“It was tough, and everyone was distraught about Jenna the entire season,” Spinney said. “Alli Borders did a really good job stepping in for Jenna at setter. Jenna had been the national leader in assists per set her freshman year, and in the top 10 as a sophomore. So, it was a tough job to step in at setter, but Alli did very well.”

Fessler returned to the line in 2017 and led Thomas More to a 29-6 record and the Presidents’ Athletic Conference championship. She was also named first team All- Presidents’ Athletic Conference as the Saints earned a berth in the NCAA Division III Tournament. Just a year after battling the West Nile virus, Fessler finished with 95 kills, 1,009 assists, 37 service aces, 291 digs and 19 blocks.

But there was more work to do for Fessler and Thomas More, which dropped a five-set decision to Christopher Newport (Va.) in the opening round of the NCAA Division III Tournament. The work would have to wait until the 2018 season, though.

HAVING BEATEN WEST NILE VIRUS, A CHAMPION AGAIN

Now healthy and showing no lingering effects of the West Nile virus, Fessler is again a champion. Thomas More captured the American Collegiate Athletic Association Tournament championship on Sunday, sweeping past Finlandia (Mich.) in Delhi, New York. It’s the fourth time (2014, ’15, ’17 and ’18) the Saints have won a conference title with Fessler directing the offense.

Thomas More enters the NCAA Division III Tournament with a 31-3 record and will meet Pitt-Bradford (20-12) on Friday in the first round at Huntingdon, Pa. The Saints earlier this season knocked off the nation’s No. 1 team, Calvin (Mich.), on the road. They’ve also beaten four other nationally ranked teams and demonstrated they are indeed one of the elite volleyball programs. Thomas More is currently ranked No. 7 nationally and could potentially meet No. 6 Juniata (Pa.) in the regional championship match on Sunday.

Coach Spinney gives instructions to freshman outside hitter Emily Mohs during a home match. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

Fessler has recorded 1,136 assists this season (9.47 per set) and set the pace for an offense that attacks at a .238 clip. She has also served up a team-leading 46 aces and scooped up 243 digs. This past weekend, Fessler was named the ACAA’s Setter of the Year after leading Thomas More to the title.

“Honestly, besides having a lot of volleyball years on my body, I feel physically the best I have for a long time,” Fessler said. “Mentally, I’m just focused and ready for the last couple of weeks of the season, enjoying the time I have left playing with this team.

“Unless someone asks me about it, I don’t really think about the West Nile virus. I survived it and I’m not dealing with any effects from it. It’s just something that happened to me in the past, and I’m better for it.”

Fessler also credited her parents and Thomas More for the overwhelming support she received during the ordeal. “My family, friends, teammates, coaches, and the staff and administrators at Thomas More were all so amazing throughout it,” she pointed out. “My coaches and teammates always made me feel included and a part of the team. The people at TMU helped me [remain caught up] in school.

“And most importantly, my parents were my rocks. Once my dad drove four hours, so I could go to one of the team’s matches. My mom never left my side while in the hospital and did everything for me throughout the recovery; I don’t think I would have made it through it all without my mom.”

After graduation, Fessler intends to pursue a coaching career. Spinney gave a glowing endorsement for his star setter as a future coach. “Jenna’s not just a student of the game, she imparts knowledge. She would help a team make better decisions, which is invaluable,” he said, noting volleyball is her passion. “Her stats are also a testament to making great decisions with the ball.

“She touches the ball every time it’s on our side of the court, and that player needs to be your smartest player. I’ve coached players at the Division I level, but no one makes better choices than Jenna.”

Those attributes, plus the real-life experience of beating a deadly illness while in college, have no doubt prepared Jenna Fessler for any future challenges. Just visit her recent past if you need proof.

Contact Don Owen at don@nkytrib.com and follow him on Twitter at @dontribunesport

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One Comment

  1. J J Harris says:

    Many thanks for sharing Jenna’s amazing story.

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