Living Buddhism: Thank you, Phillip, for discussing your profound experience with us regarding your daughter’s health. How did her health challenges begin?
Phillip Murray: Our daughter, Danica, was born in 2001. As the months passed, she developed a persistent cough. We took her to the hospital when she was 2 years old, and she was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis (CF), a genetic disease where thick mucus blocks vital organs, especially the lungs, making it hard to breathe. At the time, the average life span for someone with CF was 19 years. I thought, Is this happening? The weight of the answer was crushing. I was overwhelmed, at first by hopelessness and then by a familiar, rising anger.
How did anger affect your perspective?
Phillip: All my life, anger had been close at hand. It was my way of resolving conflict. If I felt that I or someone I cared for had been wronged, I gave full play to my anger. But if my position didn’t win out, I threw in the towel. Mine was a hot-cold, take-it-or-leave-it approach. I had the courage to bull rush an opponent but lacked the determination to stick around when the going got tough.
My anger caused me to get into a dispute with a fellow SGI member in the 1990s when I was a young men’s leader. As a result, I distanced myself from SGI activities and decided to never take leadership again. I held on to that anger for years.
With my daughter’s illness, however, my anger didn’t have a clear target. I couldn’t argue with Danica’s diagnosis. There was no one to blame. I was in unchartered waters.
What did you do?
Phillip: Well, in 2008, after Danica required multiple hospitalizations, we moved from the dry climate of Las Vegas to Florida, where the moist, salty air and robust CF services stabilized her condition.
That must have been a relief.
Phillip: It was. Between the medical bills and the cost of the move, however, we had fallen off the financial edge. Instead of rising to the task, I increasingly ignored my Buddhist practice. I vented to those closest to me, and my wife, Elena, and I argued more than ever.
I hit a breaking point and knew that I had to make a change when I realized that I had shelved Danica’s illness and our financial problems between Things I’m responsible for and Things beyond my ability to solve. I began to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, study Ikeda Sensei’s writings and participate in SGI activities with the resolve to take responsibility for my family’s situation and transform it.
How did your renewed Buddhist practice change your perspective?
Phillip: Refreshing my practice gave me the wisdom and courage to take on some of the most intense battles with Danica’s condition. In February 2013, Danica’s lung capacity dropped to 50%. Her doctors did not know what to do. Elena researched many children’s hospitals before identifying one of the best in Denver. After arriving there, the doctors applied their experience with CF but without effect. After two weeks, my wife called from Denver. She was struggling not to break down. The doctors told her to “prepare for the worst.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. We were faced with the reality that we could lose Danica.
After the call, I sat in front of the Gohonzon. My son, Cargan, joined me. I chanted with my whole heart. I thought of Danica fighting for her life, of my wife’s voice cracking under the weight of the doctors’ words, of my son, beside me now, chanting fervently. What can I do? I put forth the question to the universe. I read encouragement from Sensei that had been absent from my life for years. He mentioned how the ultimate form of prayer is a vow to contribute to the happiness of others. And by doing so, we can bring forth our best selves.
I was reminded of the SGI leaders who had been reaching out to encourage me for years. These were people with families and jobs, who had used their downtime to reach out to me because they cared. I’d taken these gestures for granted. That night I made a vow: Danica is going to win. My family is going to win. From now on, I am taking responsibility for kosen-rufu. This is the line, and I’m never backing down again.
I felt a shift within. I felt this conviction that everything was going to be OK. The doctors continued different treatments. Within a week, Danica’s condition improved. Eventually, she stabilized and returned home.
That night I made a vow: Danica is going to win. My family is going to win. From now on, I am taking responsibility for kosen-rufu. This is the line, and I’m never backing down again.
How did this vow affect your life?
Phillip: My life, especially my home life, had felt like one long, escalating conflict. After making a vow, however, anger loosened its hold. I was more available for my kids and created harmony with my wife. For the first time in my life, I was taking my mentor’s guidance to heart. I began to see my problems in the perspective of a bigger picture. I wanted to prove that whatever you are going through, you can win based on a vow for kosen-rufu.
What resulted from that vow?
Phillip: In 2017, I was asked to take on leadership in my district. Though I had avoided taking responsibility for so many years, I remembered my vow and accepted. Now, I’m a proud men’s leader for Southwest Florida Chapter.
In 2019, Danica came down with a flu, which is life-threatening for her. At the time, she was preparing to star in her first professional theater production and was determined to continue. Within days, though, she called me from her school campus saying she did not have the strength to drive home. A friend drove her to the emergency room. From there, Danica was admitted to the hospital and put on oxygen. I spent every day in the hospital with her, chanting at her bedside and encouraging her to fight. Our SGI family chanted with us. Members visited her almost every day.
Danica’s condition slowly deteriorated. She was on a cocktail of medications to keep the infection from spreading. Life went on around her. Her friends made plans for college. By this time, she had been in the hospital for five weeks.
What was your response during such a time?
Phillip: I resolved to fight all-out for Danica, for my family and for kosen-rufu. I felt buoyed by our SGI family. I told the members about the situation. As I did so, more and more people began showing up to our discussion meetings. Some were members who hadn’t come out in a long time. Having heard about Danica’s situation, they showed up. “We heard,” they said. “We’re here to chant for Danica.” Southwest Chapter began a daimoku campaign for Danica’s recovery. The district women’s leader took me aside and said, “She’s our daughter, too.”
Meanwhile, Danica’s oxygen levels continued to drop. The doctors said they had run out of ideas. They recommended we move her to another hospital and began the paperwork for the transfer. A few hours later, she was on her way to Gainesville, Florida. She sent me a text from the ambulance saying: “I’m so scared. I can’t breathe.” Within hours of arriving at the new hospital she was put on life-support.
That must have been terrifying.
Phillip: Things looked hopeless, but I determined to keep fighting! We had to win. The doctors told us that the only option for Danica was a double-lung transplant, for which there was a waiting list. To complicate matters, the donor lungs had to match Danica’s blood type, which narrowed the list to 9% of donors.
Members from all over Florida came to the hospital to chant at Danica’s bedside. I was driving the five hours between the hospital in Gainesville and Fort Myers while Elena stayed in the intensive care unit with Danica. This went on for three weeks.
On May 13, my son and I drove to Gainesville to spend a few days with Danica and give Elena a break. On the drive up, I received a text message that Southwest Chapter had completed one million daimoku for Danica.
When I arrived at the hospital, I was told to wait outside the ICU for the doctor. When the doctor arrived, he said that they could not stop the infection, that it was beginning to fill up Danica’s lungs and that if she did not get new lungs right away, she would die. He then told me that they had identified a donor, and a team was on the way to evaluate the donor’s lungs. My son and I joined my wife at Danica’s bedside, and we chanted intensely. After some time, we received the news—the transplant team was headed back with Danica’s new lungs. Hours later, Danica underwent an eight-hour double-lung transplant.
How did the surgery go?
Phillip: It was successful! Danica grew up with CF and always struggled to breathe. She was used to taking short quick breaths, as if panting, to get enough air. When she got her new lungs, she needed therapy to learn how to take relaxed normal breaths.
Now, after 18 years, she was finally able to run, walk, sing and chant like everyone else, without struggling to breathe. Two years have passed since the transplant, Danica will finish her bachelor’s degree at Florida Gulf Coast University. She also recently starred in the world premiere of the play Bulletproof Backpack.
Through all of these battles my family emerged victorious. We overcame seemingly impossible odds again and again, and through this, have deepened our appreciation for our lives and one another. I am so different from the young man I once was, quick to anger, brittle in spirit. My life is filled with appreciation for my Buddhist practice, our SGI family and Sensei. Today, our house echoes with laughter, song and the rhythmic sound of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.