Liberty University football coach Hugh Freeze underwent surgery Friday morning for a strand of staphylococcus infection and is recovering at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville.
ESPN was the first to report on the staph infection and Freeze’s surgery.
Freeze, who was hired as the program’s ninth head coach in December, had not been at football practices since the team’s first scrimmage Aug. 10 because of severe back spasms.
“Somehow I got a strand of that [staph infection] in my blood, and it attacked in that area in the disc region that caused severe pain,” Freeze told The News & Advance in a phone interview Saturday evening.
He said he is being kept at UVa Medical Center for the remainder of the weekend and will be reevaluated Monday. The doctors have performed ultrasounds on his heart, liver and other organs to ensure the staph infection hadn’t spread from his back.
“We’ve been blessed that none of those have been touched,” he said. “They’re hopeful that we got it all.”
Freeze first experienced pain in his back during the scrimmage and asked the athletic trainer for a pain pill to help relieve the pain. Normally, he would sleep with a pillow under his back, wake up, stretch and go back to work. Freeze said he has “always coached with a tight back from time to time.”
“This one, when I got home that night, was different,” he said. “The spasms of pain that were hitting me were unlike anything I had ever experienced. I still tried to tough it out, and Jill [Freeze’s wife] helped me get to bed, but by Sunday morning, I could not move and we had to call the ambulance and they took me to Lynchburg [General Hospital]. The doctors there did an awesome job of kind of evaluating me.”
Freeze said he saw Dr. John Prahinski, an orthopedic surgeon, at Lynchburg General for his pain. Freeze said he was given muscle relaxers Sunday and for “a decent amount” Monday, but the pain did not subside.
Prahinski, according to Freeze, thought the symptoms were more than just back spasms, and ordered an MRI to take a closer look at Freeze’s back.
That’s when Freeze called Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr.
Falwell told The News & Advance Saturday evening he was at a party that weekend in California with Dr. Jim Thompson, the physician who performed a transcatheter suture closure of a patent foramen ovale — the medical term for a hole in the heart — on Falwell in September 2018, and reached out to Thompson about the situation.
Falwell said Thompson contacted U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, one of the nation’s top neurosurgeons, and Carson followed up that conversation with a consultation with Freeze. The two discussed options, including transporting Freeze to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore where Carson would admit him.
Eventually Freeze was transported from Lynchburg General Hospital to UVa Medical Center to be admitted under the care of Dr. Dilan Ellegala. Ellegala, who has a practice in Scottsdale, Arizona, received the MRI from Prahinski and was flown on Liberty’s plane to Charlottesville to treat Freeze, arriving Thursday night at UVa Medical Center.
“[Freeze] was just anxious to get back on the field, and our goal was to get him pain-free and get him healthy as quickly as possible,” Falwell said Saturday evening, “and I’m just thankful that I met certain people in the last few years that did wonderful things for me, for my wife [Becki] and now for Hugh.”
Freeze said Ellegala observed him and said he felt it could be an infection causing the pain.
“We’ve got to get in there and find out if it’s true; if not, we’ll fix whatever it is,” Freeze said of the conversation he had with Ellegala.
Ellegala was right. He had to clean the infectious area around Freeze’s herniated disc, treat it with antibiotics, and then use an ultrasonic technology he created for spinal surgery, Sonospine, to repair Freeze’s herniated disc. Ellegala used the same technology to treat Becki Falwell’s herniated disc in March 2018.
In addition to the back surgery, Ellegala had a team of infectious disease professionals test the infection, and they returned with the results of it being a strand of a staph infection, Freeze said.
“I had seen it on players’ skin before, but I had never heard of it getting in the blood,” Freeze said.
The surgery lasted about 2 1/2 hours, according to Freeze, and he has been treated with antibiotics since the surgery.
“I knew I had their support, I’ve seen enough to know that, but this was above and beyond. Truthfully, if President Falwell had not acted like he did, we really could have been in trouble,” Freeze said.
Freeze said Ellegala has told him that when he returns to coaching he use a golf cart for 80% of the practice, and that he coach in the booth during the Aug. 31 season opener at home against Syracuse to prevent “running around the sideline or being danger of getting hit or twisted or turned.”
Freeze said he plans on remaining in communication with his coaching staff during his recovery. The players have a light practice without pads today, do not practice Monday because of the first day of classes, and return to full practice Tuesday.
“There better not be any changes. We still have staff meetings every morning, I’m still on them. We go through the whole day, we go through every period, every practice, every script. The only thing’s that changed is I’m not sitting there and I’m not bringing the energy to the practice field,” Freeze said.
“I think we miss some of that with me driving that train, but sometimes that’s a little overrated anyway. I’m pleased with our coaches and how they’ve responded, how our players have responded, and just can’t wait to get back. I miss the heck out of them.”
Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.