BRENNAN SIMKINS WAS DIAGNOSED with a rare subtype of leukemia on his seventh birthday.
The next four years gave witness to one of the most improbable stories in the history of pediatric cancer. Unwilling to accept a hopelessly terminal diagnosis after his first relapse, his parents found the one research institution willing and capable of designing new treatment protocols and therapies to keep him alive until a cure could be identified.
For the next four years, Brennan's determination of will inspired his doctors and transformed the hearts of all who witnessed it. This work is a chronicle of near tragedy, spiritual reconciliation, and redemption, presented through the perspective of a devoted father. Possibilities is a brave and true-life story of the fighting spirit of one little boy who overcame daunting medical odds while transforming the lives of others.
Turner Simkins began his writing career as a staff writer at the Augusta Herald prior to his freshman year at Washington and Lee University, where he majored in philosophy and minored in English. He claims that "writing is the only inherent trait that has allowed [him] to cul- tivate a respectable business career," referring to his twenty-five-year professional life and current role as director at both Newfire Media,a digital advertising agency, and Blue Beech, a New Urbanist real estate consulting firm. He lives in North Augusta, South Carolina, with his wife Tara and their three sons. He is a co-founder of, and actively engaged with, the pressonfund.org, which seeks less toxic cures for pediatric acute myeloid leukemia and neuroblastoma.
|Publisher:||Greenleaf Book Group, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
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Perseverance, Grace, and the Story of One Family's Life with Leukemia
By N. Turner Simkins
River Grove BooksCopyright © 2015 N. Turner Simkins
All rights reserved.
Fall 2008 to Spring 2009
"Daddy, my leg hurts." Not exactly something unusual to hear a first grader complain about. Brennan's older brother Nat had leg pains at times. And as Brennan's became more and more frequent, and we took more and more notice, our comfort was slightly bolstered with reassurance from other parents that their kids had the same issue.
But Brennan was never a complainer. If anything, he was the tough one, always wanting to try new things. He had the capacity to take on grown-up sized chores as a little guy. Even as a pre-K'er, he would work on his golf at the driving range and the putting green productively until he could not stand any more. He would sometimes be asleep in the car before we could arrive home (which was just a few blocks away). He would watch the older kids and study their moves. He was strong.
So when fatigue started to layer itself on top of the pains, our parental concern produced an appointment with a highly regarded pediatric orthopedist. His prognosis was that Brennan appeared normal, but that in very rare cases, leg pain could be symptomatic of blood disease. He told us not to panic, but that Brennan should have a blood test in the not too distant future. This was December.
I honestly don't recall the pain becoming more severe, but Brennan started to get tired a lot, sleeping in more. The pain persisted. We scheduled the blood test just after the new year in 2009, at the finale of the Simkins birthday season. This started in November with me and Nat, who had just turned nine, and concluded with Brennan on January 21. We had all planned a great winter birthday retreat to the NC mountains, and with snow in the forecast for the weekend of January 17, we all gathered with Tara's family for the big winter celebration, complete with snowmen, winter campfires, s'mores, cakes, movies, and a cabin full of cousins.
We awoke on our first mountain morning to the fulfillment of the weatherman's prophecy—a healthy foot of snow. Our beloved little Blue Ridge retreat was blanketed with a whiteness rarely seen by little boys in central Georgia, and like Christmas, the kids were up early, tugging our sheets, begging for sleds, snowman parts, shovels, and much parental assistance.
All but Brennan. He slept. And he slept.
By noon, the sun was out, and despite the accumulation, we knew that even in these parts winter is fleeting; so we felt he needed a little reminder. Leaning into his bunk, Tara stroked his light dirty-blond hair and told him, "Brenny, all of the kids are waiting for you to make a snowman. Why don't we get dressed and join in the fun outside?"
"I'm tired, Mommy, I just want to sleep," he said, groggily reaching his hands up to her for a hug. Then he smiled and looked over to me, reaching his hands out for more hugs. Since he had been a baby, he had yearned to be held. With his extraordinary tenderness and affection for others, it always had seemed an appropriate way for him to start his days. As his godfather said, "There is something special about that kid."
I wrapped him in a blanket and carried him from the bunkhouse to the main house through a path in the snow, made firm by the other children. The shady places were still lush, with spruce and hemlock limbs still weighted with heavy fronds of unwilted snow. We placed Brennan on the sofa to watch a DVD while the rest of the kids played outside, and then we both looked at each other with a powerful new concern.
As lunchtime arrived, the other children emerged indoors, tromping rubber boots on the worn wood floors and shedding wet clothing much to the counterdirection of parents. Tara's mom, "Mimi," began to make hotdogs as the little ones—which included Tara's sister Susie's two children Emma and Pierce in addition to Nat and Christopher—all piled on the sofa to snuggle with Brennan for a timely airing of Snow Buddies. Tara, Susie, and I decided we would take the lunchtime for a break ourselves and go for a walk down the snowy forest road outside of the cabin.
The sun was bright by this time. The light filtering through the massive trees revealed little rainbows showering to the ground as drops of melted snow. There was enough shade along the Whiteside Cove Road to have preserved a good solid compaction beneath our feet as we crunched our way along to talk away from everyone else.
"I don't want to sound like I'm overstepping my bounds," Susie offered, "but Brennan concerns me." Tara and I, having spoken in silence up to that point, through looks or concerned expressions, agreed.
When we returned, Brennan was up and getting dressed. The heavy clouds had returned, enveloping the mountains in blue-gray mist. The temperature was dropping, and blustery flurries returned as we compacted snowballs into larger snowballs, rolling them into the larger anatomical features of snow people. Little green tracks revealed the mossy earth beneath. The snowmen took shape, somewhat dirty looking and sad, but the kids revered their new acquaintances with pride. Before we could apply the finishing button nose to the first man, Brennan looked up to me with an ashen complexion and huge circles under his eyes.
"I want to go to bed, Daddy," he told me.
His mother took him in for a nap which lasted through the night, as we continued to put on our best face for the others. The sense of foreboding was suffocating.
* * *
The next Monday was semi–back to normal. All home. Familiar environs. Brennan made it up for school at St. Mary on the Hill to start his first winter semester of first grade. Christopher was across the hall in kindergarten, and Nat had moved up the food chain to the "big boy" building for second graders and older. I knew that Tara was taking Brennan to the pediatrician later in the day.
Arriving at work, I expressed the heaviness of the weekend to our bookkeeper, Rhonda, whose office is next to mine. But the day went on, as workdays usually do, with lots of phone calls and more than enough busy work to distract me from more central matters. Then the phone rang around four o'clock.
"Turner, Dr. Jones called and says we need to take Brennan to the children's hospital for more tests," she said calmly. "It may be a long night. We need to go talk to the boys."
I closed my computer, poked my head into Rhonda's office, and said, "Looks like it is something after all. Hope I see you tomorrow."
Her eyes revealed everything that mine were hiding. She got up and gave me a hug. I did not return to work for over a week. —NTS
War on the Home Front
Posted January 29, 2009
I try to remind myself that gnawing feelings are just feelings, and that I need to be in control of my internal behavior. It is when the gnawing feelings bear out that the spiral begins.
For me, this validation occurred around six p.m. as we walked onto the Hem-Onc floor at the Children's Medical Center at the Medical College of Georgia (CMC). Taking the elevator to the fifth floor, with Tara at my side and Brennan in my arms, I was holding on to him in an effort to believe that I would be taking him back down soon.
"We are taking Brennan to the hospital for a couple of tests," we had told the Brothers as they sat attentively on our little back stoop, still in their little blue and white school uniforms from the day. A struggling poinsettia withered in its green tinfoil planter from the Christmas holiday. Brennan's birthday was "tomorrow," and we assured the boys that the party was still on. Then, dropping the Brothers off at their grandparents' house, we headed for the hospital with as much of a positive face and cheerfulness as we could muster.
But stepping off the elevator onto the fifth floor, the first kid to greet us was a little boy, slightly older than Brennan, working alone at a computer play station, bald head, tethered to an IV tree overladen with fluids, pumps, and a bag of blood.
"Here we go," I said to Tara, holding her hand and walking into the rest of our lives.
That night is forever branded onto my soul, partly because of the fear and hostility Brennan demonstrated. I was forced to hold him down in his little hospital bed as the nurses delicately and caringly attempted to install his first IV. There was an army of nurses, doctors, and attendants, all prepared to generate sufficient "blood work" in order to quickly delve into a diagnosis, but also in order to harvest "his" blood before they could begin transfusing him. It was chaotic. It was loud. And Brennan was afraid.
Tara and I were clearly not aware of this, but at that time Brennan's cancer was so progressed that he was within a week or so of losing all of his red blood cells to leukemia. He was effectively bleeding to death from the inside out, in front of our eyes over the previous weekend, and we'd had no clue.
As the blood began to drip into his arms, his color began to return. A sweet nurse wrapped his hands in warming blankets to make him comfortable. "Hold his hand," she told me as I reached over to grasp his tiny blue hand while we tearfully looked away at a cartoon. They were freezing.
Brennan began to rest, and Tara and I walked out of the room to confer with Dr. Afshin Ameri, who was on call that particular night. He told us that Brennan's anemia was symptomatic of either aplastic anemia (a terminal blood disease) or leukemia (a terminal blood cancer). He outlined the survival rates for ALL (acute lymphoblastic leukemia), which are now over 90 percent. With that, Tara and I found a handhold, something with which to stop the emotional spiral. OK, this is big, but we can do this.
We called the grandparents and told them not to tell the Brothers yet, as we wanted to do this with Brennan, but we gave them the list of suspected problems. With the commotion seemingly under control for the time being, Tara and I made a trip to the McDonald's at the hospital first floor, got a Happy Meal for Brennan, and we settled into his room on the eve of his birthday. Before midnight, he took three units of blood. Happy Birthday.
The actual birthday the following day was amazing, considering what was happening. Although confined to his hospital floor and told he would not be home for a month, Brennan exuded everything pure and good about humanity that afternoon. Strapped to what was to become the ubiquitous IV pole, his friends gathered 'round him with laughter, cheer, and no real sense of awkwardness. Just kids being kids.
Brennan took the news well, as did his brothers, although one could read a higher degree of anxiety with Nat, who had recently lost a favorite teacher to cancer and understood its consequences. But we explained to them that Brennan was not a sick child, but a kid with a challenge, and while our temporary family home would be a hospital, nothing else had changed.
But Tara and I knew that a lot was changing. I have to admit that despite the gravity of the situation, the thing that kept crossing my mind was: And I may never get to see his potential as a golfer. Of all things.
* * *
We were informed that Brennan had a rare subtype of AML, which was typically an adult cancer. His subtype, 7q deletion, required three cycles of chemotherapy, all in hospital over the next three months, after which a bone marrow transplant would be necessary as an insurance policy to help ensure that he was capable of achieving remission and holding on to it. Within a few weeks, his brother Nat was identified as a perfect bone marrow match.
But the transplant seemed an eternity away. Our first battle would be remission. Given all of the things we were to brace for—sickness, infection, loss of hair, susceptibility to infection, major lifestyle changes—Tara and I quietly, almost instinctively, made a pact that we would focus our energy on the task at hand. Only in that capacity could we be with this child, who so desperately needed support, as well as his brothers, who so desperately needed their brother. No second guessing, just forge ahead. —NTS
Message from Tara and Turne
Posted Jan 31, 2009 12:24am
The wonderful energy created by you all was manifest in Brennan all day, from his beautiful smile, which greeted us in the morning, to a lively afternoon with his brothers, who are both thrilled to be out of school and spending the weekend with Brenny. Throughout, the doctors maintained guarded enthusiasm as they monitored an infection which has been developing on his left arm, presumably from the original IV which was installed last week prior to the installation of his port-o-cath. It bothered Brennan throughout and had been scratched and fidgeted with, as we are all prone to do, which presumably introduced fungal matter into his system. As a precaution, they are planning a small surgical procedure in the morning to drain the infection in an effort to keep it contained and away from the all-important "port" which delivers the chemotherapy to his bloodstream. He received a blood transfusion today and will receive platelets in the morning prior to surgery.
While the prayer books have not had time to gather dust, please keep them handy and in good working order. We continue to pray for the wonderful friends and family who make every day a thanksgiving. —NTS
Update On Brennan's Infection
Posted Feb 2, 2009 10:13pm
We are just getting underway on Brennan's path to recovery. Tara suggested to me that perhaps we should replace the term "path" with "maze," given the complexities associated with its navigation.
Just as we assumed we had resolved the matter associated with the staph infection in Brennan's arm, today the infectious disease specialists determined that we are indeed treating a fungus, which is a much more vigilant type of infection. The good news is that it remains contained in the one location in the arm and is being treated with some hard-core medicine. We are monitoring his reaction to this new drug every fifteen minutes while it is administered through the evening and are expecting a thorough review of its status first thing in the morning to determine if more aggressive measures should be taken. Of course, my previous night's research into AML-related fungal infections left me struggling to maintain my own composure. Perhaps it was the frequent use of the word catastrophic that left my wits frayed. I have no choice but to latch firmly onto the love from the day before.
Yet for every way into the maze, there is a way out. Your prayers continue to give us much comfort and direction. —NTS
A Tale of Two Worlds
Posted Feb 9, 2009 12:05am
When we arrived this morning, Brennan's chief surgeon attending the infection situation, Dr. Walt Pipken, was present, seemingly dressed for church. The previous night he had stayed late. Dr. Pipken was strongly concerned that he may have to take more radical action to excise the fungal area in order to ensure that it wasn't spreading. Before we had even showered, two attending physicians and Dr. Pipken had altered their schedules, and at ten a.m. they were preparing Brennan for surgery to excise the affected area. Today was special because these dedicated people made Brennan's condition their priority and effectively rallied the troops for this one procedure.
Dr. Pipken emerged from the surgery suite with positive news. The tissue appeared good, and they are hopeful that the infection is contained and may not require additional surgery. Pathology will give us the full verdict on this in a day or two.
With Brennan back in his room emerging from the fog of anesthesia, Tara's mom, Susan, and I went to Mass at the Church of the Most Holy Trinity and were greeted with a serendipitous selection of scripture readings from the book of Job referencing suffering as a conditional part of human existence, and from Corinthians, regarding the capacity of Christ to heal those in need.
The visiting priest who offered the homily is from a remote area in Africa. He led the sermon by saying that when he first arrived in America, he was baffled when he first noticed an animal hospital. He was astounded that there could be such a thing, coming from a nation which offered few even moderately equipped facilities for tens of thousands of people in need. He had lost his six-year-old brother to a snake bite because the hospital was over 30 miles away and the only automobile in his village was gone for the day. His father attempted to push the boy the 30 miles by handcart, but lost him on the way.
Excerpted from Possibilities by N. Turner Simkins. Copyright © 2015 N. Turner Simkins. Excerpted by permission of River Grove Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
SURPRISE ATTACK Fall 2008 to Spring 2009,
NEW NORMAL Spring and Summer 2009,
ESCALATION Fall 2009,
REPRIEVE February to October 2010,
BATTLE OF THE BULGE Fall 2010,
SCORCHED EARTH Winter 2010 to Summer 2011,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Turner Simkins has beautifully written a powerful and spiritual account of his family's journey with his son's cancer. I was privileged to have insight into this story of courage, pain, and joy. It is a must read.
Very magnetic! This story lures you in and makes you see the world different because the author eloquently explains how this boy's innocence and strength teaches us. Brennan focused on the present, and his focus was amazing in that he was very cooperating with the doctors and parents. When treatment were performed and he was in recovery under much discomfort, he managed to place his focus on legos and paper airplanes. This boy is something else, he focused on living every step of the way and was grateful for all the love he was receiving from his family. Thats all that mattered to him and never complained about what he was going through. He simply fought on and found ways to enjoy himself such as playing hockey with his brothers in the hospital hallway with him being the goalie using his IV tree. I find the author's voice to be witty and contemporary. A true page turner told in a unique way; like you expect to read a sad story, however it's written in a philosophical easy to understand city voice to it. He quotes Kierkegaard "a passion for the impossible" to his 'reaction "So we are supposed to place all of our chips on the long shot for the leukemia cure and bet with the odds for the mental problems?" I started to suggest we consult a bookie, but bit my tongue.' One word - Catchy! Written very catchy! Also informative easy to comprehend medical terminology and meanings.
This is an amazing story of one family's fight in the war of pediatric cancer. More importantly, the message Turner Simkins conveys about family, faith and love are so important. If everyone read this book and applied the lessons he learned in such a horrific time to our (mostly) mundane lives, the world would be a much better place.
A very up-lifting story of a boy and his family's successful fight against childhood cancer. Well written by the father, the books reads like a novel with deatiles that put you into their heart breaking concerns, from the beginning of the diagnosis fo the successful out come. This is a story that will consume the reader from start to finish and will be difficult to put down in one reading.
Captivating, amazing, motivating. Unbelievable story of one family's life fighting Leukemia. I felt like a family member as the challenges and decisions of treatment options were considered and selected for Brennan. One Team One Fight - explains the drive, determination, dedication and devotion to support of Brennan exhibited by an unbelievable family, coupled with prayer and a belief in Brennan's strong will to live, is truly heart warming and strengthens my belief in God. Barney Barnum Colonel of Marines (Ret) Medal of Honor Recipient
Turner Simkins has beautifully written an amazing and inspiring real life account of his courageous, young son Brennan’s 4 year battle against the seemingly insurmountable odds of childhood neuroblastoma. The book is a true life story of the strength of family, the courage of a small child and the power of prayer. Feel the hope and hopelessness thru the stream of consciousness web blogs Turner wrote over the course of 4 years that are woven seamlessly into the story. Turner makes the reader feel the raw range of emotions Turner and his wife Tara go thru along with the band of brothers as Brennan bravely fights thru many near death episodes. Feel the power of prayer and the positive effect of small gestures by friends and family. The book will move you to tears and make you search deep inside yourself to try and understand how you might react in similar circumstance, what would you do as Brennan’s parents and could you be as brave as Brennan? The book concludes knowing full well the story is not over, but it leaves you convinced that whatever the end of the story ultimately is, it has a purpose and Brennan and his Band of brothers will continue to Press On. Turner is a gifted writer and this book is a great read that will move your soul.
Exceptional it is!! Great writing, Turner. Brennan, you and Tara and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital are all stars - and winners. It is a love story in the true sense of the word and a compelling read. I intend to pass it on.
This book is absolutely amazing. I am an avid non-fiction reader and this book is packed with raw emotion. It's a story of survival, parenting, miracles, siblings, and a true love story :) I babysat for a period of time for this family prior to their cancer journey. They are amazing and they allowed. This journey create an even closer bond and love for each other!! Their journey has transformed the fight for pediatric cancer!
Highly recommended for anyone, whether you or a loved one are experiencing cancer or not. This is not just the true story of a young boy fighting and surviving a difficult form of leukemia. It is a tale reminiscent of, but much more detailed than, the stories told in the recent PBS documentary, Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies. Informed by a blog the boy’s father wrote to keep family and friends updated during the ordeal, this book is a compelling read on several levels. It is a chronicle of the medical science behind the boy’s leukemia treatment, which included repeated detection, diagnosis, chemotherapy, and bone marrow transplants. Next, it is the personal story of the emotional ups and downs not only of a young child’s reaction to multiple cycles of exhaustion, pain and wellness, but the parent’s and sibling’s journey as well. It is also a guide to pushing our healthcare system beyond the “acceptable standard of care”, all the while filled with admiration and respect for those working within that system. Finally, woven into this remarkable story is a meditation on living in the present and identifying and focusing on the things that are truly important.
Beautifully written!!! Read this book cover to cover in one day. The author, N. Turner Simkins, describes an incredible journey of saving his son's life. Truly a book that everyone should read! It gives you hope and courage for the days ahead.
How wondrous it is when a gifted writer tells a powerful and UNIQUE story. You are in for a real treat when you read this book. You will get to know a courageous small boy, two supportive brothers and a father and mother who refused to give up on saving their son. My advice is simple: read this book, buy copies for your family and friends and spread the word so many throughout America and beyond may be educated, uplifted and inspired.