To know who Brandi Fairbank is, a person needs to know what she’s been through.
It’s not something she offers up readily to anyone available. Instead, it’s what she’s overcame that has helped her become the person she is today.
And the person she is today is the interim head coach of the Fort Hays State University volleyball team.
“That’s a part of me, but as long as the people know the person I am now, that’s fine with me,” said Fairbank, who was elevated to the team’s head coach after Kurt Kohler resigned a few weeks into the season to pursue an opportunity as an athletic director at a college in Nebraska.
Now Fairbank, who became the team’s assistant coach right before practices began this fall, has taken on another challenge in her life — coaching an NCAA Division II team just months after graduating from Sterling College.
“I could have taken the easy way out and remained the assistant coach,” said Fairbank, who will be manning the sidelines tonight for a 6 p.m. contest against Emporia State University. “But I’ve never shied away. I never once thought that when it was happening. These girls rely on me, and I’m not going to let them fail — and God’s not going to let me fail either. If I’m brought to this, then I can succeed in it, and I’m going to do the best that I possibly can to help these girls and get them to where they need to be.”
The volleyball court is where Fairbank, 22, believes she belongs. That’s why she applied for the assistant position at FHSU, turning down other offers to help coach in Hays.
“All those years of volleyball she’s had, and she’s going to give it her best shot,” said her mother, Dana Fairbank. “Her and her father (Jim), that’s what they do and have done for a long time together.”
But her time on the court was nearly cut short just four years ago.
After starring at Cimarron High School, Fairbank pursued her sport of passion at nearby Dodge City Community College. Just a few weeks into her freshman season, though, everything came to a crashing halt.
While warming up for a game at Colby Community College, Fairbank felt something wrong with her right arm. At first, she thought it was because the gym was a bit cold and she just hadn’t warmed up enough.
But instead of being in the starting lineup, she sat on the bench with an aching arm — which started turning purple and began getting colder.
By the end of the game, the then-18-year-old couldn’t move her fingers and her arm was swollen.
Trainers urged her to go to the emergency room in Colby to be checked out, and then she was asked by staff there to head to Garden City’s hospital to be evaluate because the doctors hadn’t seen anything like it before.
“It was definitely the changing point in my volleyball career, and my life as far as who I was as a person,” Fairbank said.
Her mother drove her from Colby to Garden City, and doctors there believed it to be a sprain — sending her home with pain medicine and advice to ice it.
The next morning, nothing had improved, and Fairbank went to a doctor in Dodge City.
“He literally walked into the room, saw my arm and walked out,” she said. “He walked back in and said I needed to get to a cardiologist right now, that it was not a vascular problem or muscle or tendon thing. It was something he couldn’t help me with. It was serious.”
The family drove back to Garden City to see the cardiologist. There she sat, an 18-year-old college student among much, much older patients in the waiting room.
“I thought there’s no way I have a heart problem,” Fairbank said.
Upon seeing her arm, a doctor ordered them to the ICU in Dodge City.
After finally being admitted to the ICU and having a sonogram done, it was found she had a blood clot ranging from near her shoulder down to approximately her elbow. Fairbank was told it was the biggest clot the doctors had ever seen.
She went through five procedures in Dodge City — three angioplasties and two balloonings.
“They all failed,” Fairbank said. “That’s when they finally put the titanium stent in, and that still didn’t help.”
Doctors decided to transfer the freshman to a heart specialist in Wichita.
The gravity of the situation still wasn’t setting in.
“I didn’t realize it at the time. I was a typical freshman in college,” Fairbank said. “I was all about myself at the time. I didn’t think how serious it was until they started telling me.”
Wichita doctors finally were able to get the right medicine to break up the clot, which eventually extended nearly to her wrist and could have made its way to her heart — stopping it and ending much more than her volleyball career.
Once the clot was starting to be controlled, Fairbank was sent home with medicine to help alleviate the situation.
But she was given warnings.
“I was told I’d never use my arm again,” she said. “I was told I’d never hold my child. I’d never eat, paint my house. All those simple things were taken away from me.
“My parents and I decided that was not an OK answer for someone who was 18. That’s not how I wanted to live the rest of my life at all.”
That was not only concerning to Fairbank, but also her parents.
“First of all, we wanted her to be OK,” her mother said. “And her health was the most important thing. After that, we were wondering what was going to happen next. Can she use her arm? Can she play volleyball? We had to go to quite a few doctors to see what could be done.”
Finally, the family found a doctor who was familiar with the situation and recommended something they never heard of: Removing a rib.
“We were shocked,” her mother said. “We had never heard of anything like that. My husband started researching right away.”
The cause of the large clot was found to be a subclavian vein thrombosis, where a vein gets compressed between the first rib and the collarbone.
Removing the rib — or a portion of it — can ease the pressure on the vein, allowing normal flow.
It was a risky surgery, but one Fairbank and her parents decided to take to offset the potential loss of using her right arm.
“One missed incision, one missed cut of the bone could have lost the entire use of my arm, or I literally could have died if they cut an artery,” Fairbank said. “But to me, it was worth it if I got to live a full life again. At that point, I didn’t want to live not being able to do anything with my arm ever again. I took the risk, and it paid off. I was able to use my arm completely and fully.”
So in early December 2013, when most freshman are supposed to be getting ready for Christmas break, Fairbank was going into surgery to remove a rib.
The surgery was successful, but painful. Complete movement didn’t come back immediately, and she had to work to get her arm back into shape and using it properly.
“Definitely when I was in the hospital, I questioned God a lot,” Fairbank said. “I wanted to know why He did this to me. I thought I was a good person, and how was he making something bad happen to someone who is good. After that, I realized that’s not how God works. He doesn’t punish people; he’s not a punishing God. He’s a loving God, a forgiving God. If he can help me get through this, then I can do anything through Him and get through anything. Obviously this is not a secular school, and I can’t say that to the girls. But that’s definitely my coaching philosophy. I’m not here to better myself or my resume or any of that. I’m solely here to use the talents I was given, which I believe is volleyball, to serve others — which is like Jesus serving the disciples and washing their feet and doing other things. That’s why I’m here, to use my talents to serve them and do whatever I can to help them be the best — even if it means cleaning up the locker room, doing dirty jerseys. I just want to serve God by serving others and loving them.”
It’s something she looks back on now as a learning lesson.
“It definitely changed who I was as a person,” Fairbank said. “Before then, like volleyball, I took people for granted. I took a lot of my faith for granted. I prayed; I was a good Christian. But going through that and realizing that God never left my side and He helped me through that and has given me another chance, everything I did from then on was about Him. … It was because of Him I made it through. They told me I probably wouldn’t make it, and I’m still here today and playing the sport I love. That was a big eye-opener for me.”
She returned to practices at DCCC approximately two months later, eventually playing her sophomore year at the school before transferring to Sterling for two more years.
Then, she wanted to head into the coaching realm.
She took a chance and applied at FHSU, along with other colleges. She eventually was offered the assistant role and accepted.
A few weeks later, she was named interim head coach after Kohler’s departure.
“We are just very thankful and proud of her,” said her mother. “Everything worked out for her. She had the courage and never gave up. She could have used it as an excuse and didn’t.”
Tonight, her mother and father will be watching and cheering from the stands, sporting their Tiger black and gold.
They'll see their only child leading a volleyball team and taking the challenge head-on, just like they did a few years ago.
“They never let me think it wasn’t going to be OK,” Fairbank said.