Childhood tumor leads hockey player to health care career, the Army and COVID-19 battle

By Joseph Lacdan | Army News Service | June 17, 2020

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BOSTON —

He had taken hits on the ice before. But not like this.

During a hockey game in 2001, an opponent knocked 13-year-old Jimmy Ennis to the floor and swiped him briskly on the chin. The blow left Ennis shaken and dizzy.

“I didn’t feel right,” he said. “I knew I was off and my coaches did, too.”

Ennis didn’t know then, but the hard hit may have saved his life.

Fearing a concussion, Ennis’ coach told him to stay on the bench for the remainder of the contest.

But the pain in his head wouldn’t subside.

After the game, Ennis’ parents took him to see an ER physician at Boston Children’s Hospital for an MRI. Doctors found an abnormal growth in one of the ventricles of his brain.

As he waited for the test results, he didn’t expect the injury could be serious.

A neurosurgeon said he had a choroid plexus tumor and, if left untreated, could develop into cancer. The impact of the ensuing health care treatment Ennis received led him to pursue a career in health care.

“It changed my life forever,” Ennis said. “One of the things when you’re that young is your focus is not on your health; you’re not really in tune with the fact that maybe you could die.”

Now a 32-year old first lieutenant in the Army Reserve, that pursuit has taken him to the front lines of a health care battle that has gripped much of the world. Ennis recently returned to Boston after a two-month deployment in New York City. There, he cared for patients who had to face their own mortality.

In the summer of 2001, Ennis had to face his.

AN ADOLESCENCE SHAKEN

As a preteen, the concept of life’s fragility had not yet dawned upon him. His world revolved around the game he loved, exercising and spending time with friends. He didn’t expect to face the possibility of serious illness or death before his high school years began. Doctors found the tumor just before it became serious. “According to the surgeon, it was only a matter of time,” he said.

An avid hockey player since kindergarten, he faced the possibility of leaving it behind for good. Doctors told him that he might never compete on the ice again.

The doctors and nurses at BCH guided him each step of recovery. They told him that chemotherapy would not be needed and that surgery could be the answer.

It would be months before he could attempt a return to the ice. When he did nearly a year later, he struggled with hand-eye coordination and couldn’t keep his balance on the ice.

“I had to relearn a lot of things,” Ennis said. “Your coordination is off. Just your mental status is very slow thinking-wise.”

After more than a year of rehab and recovery, his condition began to improve. He began to develop more confidence in his skating and keeping his balance. But doctors continued to monitor Ennis’ health for the next 10 years.

Ennis worked his way back into shape and competed with the Bridgewater Bandits of the Eastern Junior Hockey League and the Boston Latin High School varsity squad.

In the years after surgery, he read how patients with the same condition suffered from long-lasting consequences including brain damage. Some had cognitive and learning disabilities. Or, the tumor sometimes returned. Fortunately for Ennis, he had none of those conditions.

He realized he had received a gift from the health care professionals and wanted to return the favor.

“My early years were really developed by just being aware that life is very fragile,” Ennis said.

Ennis spent four years playing college hockey at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, first joining the Beacons as a walk-on and eventually rising to team captain. The forward capped his college career by scoring a career-best nine goals, recording 10 assists and totaling 19 points.

Ennis graduated from UMass-Boston with a bachelor’s degree in health and exercise science in 2012. But the work of the nurses and doctors at BCH during his youth remained on his mind. After a conversation with the school’s chancellor, Ennis to enrolled in UMass Medical School’s Graduate School of Nursing.

NEW PURPOSE

Ennis hoped to serve the public the same way the doctors and nurses at BCH took care of him years ago. After earning his graduate degree in nursing, he had served two years as a nurse and nurse practitioner when he decided that he wanted to do even more.

“I wanted to be like those health care professionals” Ennis said. “I wanted to someday be in a position to help others the way that I was helped.”

His blue collar roots growing up in a working class neighborhood of Boston pushed him toward a higher calling. Ennis’ father, Jim Sr., worked long hours as a diesel mechanic to put his children through college and Ennis’ mother still works as a dental assistant to this day.

He commissioned into the Army to serve as a military nurse practitioner in 2019 and currently serves with the 5th Medical Brigade in Birmingham, Alabama.

During a shift while working as a nurse practitioner at Partners Urgent Care in Boston in March, he received a phone call from his unit. Ennis had been ordered to join an Urban Augmentation Medical Task Force and he needed to be on a plane the next day to travel to Forest Park, Georgia, for training.

Six months after commissioning into the Army Reserve, he would join a medical task force unit with no knowledge of where he would be working or when he would return home.

IN THE EYE OF THE STORM

The news media dubbed the 360,000-square-foot Elmhurst Hospital as “the epicenter of the epicenter” of coronavirus. The New Yorkers treated here faced the uncertainty of not knowing the full severity of the illness. They laid in hospital beds while disconnected from their families and the outside world.

“They were either on high amounts of oxygen or coming from an ICU setting,” Ennis said. “They were very tired; a little bit confused.”

From April 8-May 22 on the west side of Queens, he evaluated and treated COVID-19 patients from the New York City borough’s diverse neighborhoods. Each day, Ennis worked alongside dozens of masked nurses and doctors treating a steady number of patients.

The patients harbored growing uncertainty, Ennis said, similar to what he faced as a teen after his head injury. He did his best to make the patients’ hospital stays comfortable. He helped them use FaceTime to speak to their families and tended to their health needs. “With a novel disease, it's hard to know how to manage correctly and you know, we're sort of doing things to the best of our ability at the time,” Ennis said. “As … more information came out, you could change gears.”

One of the COVID-19 patients was a middle-aged man who suffered a stroke while incubated at Elmhurst. Ennis and fellow Soldiers in the task force treated the patient for several weeks after he processed out of the ICU until his discharge.

“It allowed our team to use every part of the medical team: physical therapy, your providers, your nurses, your leadership, the organic staff of the hospital with discharge planning through the nurse managers and some of the other folks that social work,” he said. “So it was a true team effort to care for this person.

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