From operating room to basketball court, Riley team celebrates Cathedral player’s success

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James Franklin Jr. rebounds from epileptic seizures to lead his team, even in face of controversy

When the news broke last weekend about the alleged taunting of a Cathedral High School basketball player who has epilepsy, Dr. Jodi Smith’s heart sank.

Smith, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Riley Hospital for Children, knows James Franklin Jr., a senior at Cathedral and point guard on the school’s basketball team. She operated on him in August 2017, an extremely delicate surgery that involved removing a portion of his brain “about the size of my fist.”

“It was a huge surgery,” Smith said.

There was a lot on the line, but it gave him the best possible chance of eliminating the seizures that had plagued him off and on for years.

James, 18, came through the surgery fine, suffering only some loss of peripheral vision and general motor skill weakness. But he would go on to work with Riley physical therapist Sarah Johnson, who describes him as an amazing kid.

“Sometimes it’s hard when you’ve got teenagers in a pediatrics-focused gym, especially athletes, but it was so easy to work with James because he did whatever I asked of him,” Johnson said. “He worked on skills at home, and he came back better than he was and ready to do the next thing.”

That was James, Smith said. “He’s a tough kid.”

In fact, James was playing basketball three weeks after surgery. His grades improved, as did his spirits, said his mom, Tamieka Franklin. He has not had a seizure since the surgery.

“Riley was absolutely wonderful,” Franklin said. “It was the best decision we could have ever made.”

James had a stroke when he was born, she explained. “He wasn’t supposed to live 24 hours.”

He was in the hospital for two weeks after birth, then went through therapy and was put on medication. But he thrived as a little boy, with no seizures. Out of the blue, she said, he had a seizure on the playground when he was in sixth grade.

Tamieka and husband James Sr. had thought their son was out of the woods, but no such luck. He went back on medication, and still the seizures would occur sporadically, each time lasting two to three minutes.

After consultations with several doctors at other hospitals, the Franklins went to Riley’s emergency department, where they met neurologist Dr. Kelly Kremer.

“We call her Dr. House (for the TV series character) because she immediately took action and looked into the matter deeper than anyone had and got us answers,” Tamieka Franklin said. “We have nothing but wonderful things to say about her and Dr. Smith, who was totally outstanding as well.”

The Franklin family would go on to help raise awareness of epilepsy, including appearing at a “Sink Seizures” basketball game/fundraiser at Cathedral last year, four months after James had his surgery. Smith also attended that game between Cathedral and Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School and was moved by the compassion displayed by both teams.

“It was an amazing game,” she said. “It was a hard-fought game, and James played hard.”

At the same time, she said, “the other team was very kind and showed their true spirit in the game. They wanted this kid to do well. It was a night for him to shine. They were pulling for him. That’s what we should be doing.”

Johnson saw first-hand how hard James worked to get back into basketball shape. Unfortunately, last weekend’s incident in a game with Center Grove -- whether designed to mock James’ epilepsy as many believe, or a harmless prank that had nothing to do with his condition – has taken the focus off of James’ triumph, she believes.

“Knowing what a great kid he is, I think the focus should be on him and his hard work.”

Smith agrees. “He was willing to go through the pain and the difficulty. People should celebrate that.”

-- By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist

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