Phillips fulfilled his dream, becoming an orthopedic surgeon specializing in spinal surgery and joint reconstruction. He was seeing patients Wednesday when he was one of four people killed as a gunman opened fire at Saint Francis Hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma, according to investigators. The shooter, a patient of Phillips, then killed himself.
Phillips was 59.
Tulsa police Chief Wendell Franklin said Thursday that Phillips was the target. In a letter found on his body, the gunman “made it clear that he came in with the intent to kill Dr. Phillips and anyone who got in his way,” Franklin said. The gunman, identified as Michael Louis, blamed Phillips for his lingering pain.
Louis had an appointment with Phillips the day before the shooting spree, the Tulsa World reported Friday. Dr. Stephanie Husen, 48; receptionist Amanda Glenn, 40; and William Love, 73, who was accompanying a patient, were also killed.
“We are supposed to be the ones who are caring for others during tragedies like this,” Dr. Ryan Parker, Saint Francis associate chief medical officer and emergency room physician, said during a Thursday news conference in the hospital lobby. “To think that our caregivers were the victims is just incomprehensible to me. They died while serving others; they died in the line of duty.”
The shooting shocked Tulsa, where Phillips was a well-respected doctor, as well as other places where he had worked, including Seattle. But before becoming a surgeon, Phillips’ home was Atlanta.
“Whatever wonderful things you’ve heard about Dr. Preston Phillips are severely understated,” a former classmate and longtime friend, Leslie Meadows, posted on Facebook. “He was one of the most brilliant and kind human beings that I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. He knew how to command a room with an inspiring presence that you did not ignore (you simply couldn’t). He never had to raise his voice since it had a tone that you could feel in your soul.”
Phillips started at Douglass after moving to Atlanta for his sophomore year, and he was in the same grade as Meadows’ brother. She was three years younger, but Meadows remembers Phillips visiting her family’s home, calling her mother “mom” as if she also belonged to him. From a young age, Phillips had his future planned.
“There was no doubt that he knew all along what he was going to do,” Meadows told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
In 1990, Phillips graduated from Harvard Medical School. He held fellowships at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Boston Children’s Hospital, according to Boston media reports. From 1998 to 2005, he was employed at Seattle Orthopedics with the city’s Swedish Health Services. From there, Phillips had moved to Oklahoma.
Dr. Cliff Robertson, president and CEO of Saint Francis Health System, called Phillips’ death “the ultimate loss for Saint Francis and for Tulsa.”
Last year, when Meadows’ mother became critically ill after surgery, it was Phillips who helped guide the family through it, despite being in Tulsa and not Atlanta. Phillips offered to talk to her doctors, Meadows said. Even though her illnesses weren’t his specialty, Phillips had the right words for the family.
“Her body needs time,” he said. “Let her get the rest she needs.”
After Christmas, Meadows and her family saw Phillips for what would be their final visit. He was in Atlanta visiting his wife’s family and shared a cup of coffee with his friends.
He was focusing on his own health and found his work fulfilling.
“He talked about the people in the office and how wonderful they were,” Meadows said. “To hear that and to hear what happened, it’s so shocking and it’s heartbreaking.”