When doctors told Michelle Hennessey in 1988 that the only way she could play basketball pain-free was to have her two small toes amputated, she wouldn’t even consider such an extreme measure.
But after three surgeries--each failing to remedy her foot problems--two seasons played in excruciating pain and the daily burden of perpetually purple, swollen toes, the radical has evolved into the inevitable.
Lose the toes, lose the pain.
Hennessey, the former Edison High School standout who is now Cal State Fullerton’s point guard, doesn’t relish the thought of having two toes removed. But if it means playing basketball, tennis, going water- and snow-skiing without pain, she says it will be worth it.
She didn’t think this way 2 1/2 years ago, when she left the University of Utah after her freshman season, returning home and vowing never to play basketball again.
But she does now.
“I didn’t want to do it at first, but this could affect me the rest of my life,” said Hennessey, a 5-foot-2 junior who hopes to have the operation after the season. “I love to play a lot of sports and this would allow me to do those without pain.”
Hennessey’s foot problems began in her senior year at Edison (1986-87). Her sneakers didn’t seem to fit right and she developed an infection that ran from her toes to her shins.
Hennessey went to a hospital emergency room for treatment and doctors later discovered that two bones in her fourth and fifth toes were rubbing together. She underwent surgery after the season to remove bone fragments from the small toes.
A four-year starter and an all-Orange County performer at Edison, Hennessey accepted a scholarship to Utah, where she earned a starting spot in the fifth game of the season.
She averaged four points, six assists and two painfully swollen feet a game, but Hennessey cringed when a doctor in Utah suggested the amputations.
She decided to give up basketball before body parts, returning home for another operation to remove bone fragments and enrolling at Orange Coast College.
Hennessey spent the 1988-89 season coaching Edison’s junior varsity team, but it pained her as much to sit out as it did to play.
Encouraged by a third operation, in which all the bones from her small toes were removed and the fourth and fifth toes on each foot were sewn together, Hennessey returned to action. She averaged 8.6 points and 6.8 assists a game to help Orange Coast to a 26-6 last season, and is now piling up assists at Fullerton.
But despite a relentless, full speed ahead, on-court demeanor that doesn’t give a hint of injury, Hennessey’s feet are killing her.
“I don’t think about it as much when I’m in the game, but I still have a lot of pain,” she said. “There’s nothing anyone can do to make it better. I’ve tried all the gadgets--putting things between my toes, putting padding or foam in the shoes--nothing works. I want to have the operation and will if I can talk my mother into it.”
Therein lies the catch.
“When I think of an amputated finger or toe it makes me shudder, and here she’s choosing it,” said Paulette Hennessey, Michelle’s mother. “She has 10 toes--I counted every one of them when she was born--and I want her to have them all.”
Paulette has tried to appeal to her daughter’s vanity.
“She’s worried about what my feet would look like in sandals,” Michelle said. “She thinks it’s a little extreme and maybe she’s right, but who cares if I can do anything I want later in life? It would be worth it.”
Michelle understands her mother’s position, and Paulette is beginning to empathize with her daughter.
“If she wants it, I guess there’s not much I can do,” Paulette said. “I think by the end of the season, if she’s in as much pain as she is now, she’ll have it done.”
Even with her sore feet, Hennessey has been a cure-all for an ailing Titan team. In Hennessey, Fullerton Coach Maryalyce Jeremiah has a true point guard, one who can handle the ball, pass well, lead the fast break and play tenacious defense--all missing ingredients on last year’s 14-14 team.
Hennessey has a team-leading 44 assists (7.3 average), 19 steals and only 19 turnovers for the 4-2 Titans, who play host to the University of San Diego Saturday night. She set school single-game assist (13) and steal (eight) records in the season opener against Cal State Northridge.
“She’s making a big difference in the program this year,” Jeremiah said. “She’s one of the hardest-playing kids I’ve ever had. She just wastes herself every game. The way she plays, you wouldn’t even know there’s anything wrong with her.”
By this time next year, Hennessey hopes there isn’t anything wrong with her, unless you consider an athlete with no small toes abnormal. Hennessey is willing to accept that.
“Everyone is worried about how it will affect my balance, but the doctor said you don’t need your little toes for balance,” Hennessey said. “I want to have the surgery for a lot of reasons. I want to get through a game without my toes swelling up and turning colors.”