Just one day out of the hospital, 10-year-old Brennan Simkins sketched a game plan to go back to fourth grade. Then, he would play golf and go fishing.
Brennan returned to class at St. Mary on the Hill Catholic School on April 17 for the first time since he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in January 2009. He received four bone marrow transplants and has been in remission since February 2011.
In July, the Simkins family returned to Augusta from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., where Brennan had undergone his fourth transplant. Since then, he has had limited exposure to public places while building up his weakened immune system. In mid-February, he began weaning off autoimmune suppressants and stopped the medicine completely March 20, said his mother, Tara Simkins.
During that time, Brennan was hospitalized again for severe intestinal issues. He was discharged April 12 and sat in St. Mary Principal Joe McBride’s office the next day.
That day was the first in more than three years in which Brennan hadn’t worn a blue face mask to protect him from germs. On the drive home with his mom, he made plans to golf and fish.
“We pulled in the driveway and he said in the back seat, in that little stoic voice of his, ‘Mommy, I have so much to look forward to in my life,’ ” she said.
The Simkins family helped inspire a fundraising campaign for pediatric cancer research that has galvanized support from the local community and across the nation. The Press On to Cure Childhood Cancer Fund recently donated $303,420 to a pediatric cancer genome project at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Washington University in St. Louis.
Through March, Press On has invested more than $770,000 toward initiatives for acute myeloid leukemia and neuroblastoma, the disorder fought by Patrick Chance, Brennan’s friend who died Jan. 9 and is one of the inspirations for Press On.
Press On’s success is a result of hard work and community support, Simkins said. Donations poured in through large events, grassroot efforts and collections as small as lemonade-stand earnings.
Brennan attends school about two days a week, sitting in class with his friends and playing touch football on the playground. His first day back was a surprise to the pupils.
After the principal announced over the loudspeaker that the school was receiving an answer to its prayers, pupils from the lower level classroom wing lined the hallways. They cheered for their friend as Brennan walked up the stairs to his fourth-grade class.
“You keep fighting and you do your best and you never quit,” his mother said.
In June, Brennan will travel to Memphis as a special guest at the FedEx St. Jude Classic golf tournament. This summer, the Simkins family will visit Normandy, France, where the Army’s 101st Airborne Division landed during World War II.
The Normandy trip, granted by the Make a Wish Foundation, has been Brennan’s dream since he watched the TV miniseries Band of Brothers after his first cancer relapse. He and his brothers, Nat and Christopher, nicknamed themselves “the band of brothers.”
“(Visiting Normandy) was the No. 1 thing on his list,” his mother said. “Brennan watched others fight hard for their lives as hard as he fought for his.”