What Tara and Turner planned as a perfect family, snowy trip to the North Carolina mountains in January 2009 turned out to be anything but when the Simkins rushed their fever stricken son, Brennan, back to Augusta, Georgia. Brennan was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (“AML”) on the eve of his 7th birthday.
“Our world turned upside down. We were scared and confused,” recalls Tara Simkins, Brennan’s mom, at the reality of the frightening diagnosis. A bone marrow transplant would be necessary. Tara and her husband, Turner, were told that AML has roughly a 50-60 percent survival rate even with a successful transplant.
Brennan’s big brother, Nat, age 9 at the time, was a perfect match and agreed to be his brother’s bone marrow donor. Nat and Christopher, Brennan’s 6 year old little brother, were with Brennan constantly through the initial AML chemotherapy treatments in Augusta racing to be with Brennan every day after school and spending the night every weekend in their brother’s hospital room.
Bone marrow transplant units have a much stricter visitation policy. In May 2009, Brennan was admitted to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (“CHOA”) for his transplant. No siblings under the age of 14 were allowed. Brennan and his brothers would not be able to see one another for at least 30 days. On the day of Brennan’s transplant, a plan dawned on Tara and Turner. They positioned Nat and Christopher outside the double doors of the transplant unit with Turner, and Brennan on the inside of the unit with Tara. Then, Tara and Turner simultaneously pushed the door open buttons. The automatic doors opened, and the Band of Brothers saw each other for the first time in two weeks. It was all the Band of Brothers needed to make it through the next two weeks.
Brennan breezed through the bone marrow transplant. Four months later, Brennan’s bloodwork revealed a sudden and dramatic drop in platelets. Bad news. Relapse. A second transplant was needed. The doctors at CHOA, however, had no curative options for Brennan. After conducting a national search for a curative option, the Simkins turned to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, for a new battle plan. Not wanting to be separated during Brennan’s treatment again, the Simkins packed up the entire family and moved into the Target House in Memphis. “The Band of Brothers had to be together,” Turner states matter of factly. Dr. Wing Leung, MD, PhD, head of the bone marrow transplant department developed a transplant protocol specifically for Brennan using an unrelated donor’s stem cells and a brand new FDA approved agent in the pre-conditioning treatment. Despite 50% leukemia going into the 2nd transplant, it worked.
Eight months later, during a routine check up, Tara and Turner were shocked to hear that devastating word, again, “relapse”. “I was just numb. I couldn’t believe it. Brennan was growing stronger and stronger by the day,” shares Tara.
The doctors at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital had a plan. They proposed a bone marrow transplant using Turner’s stem cells this time. As a parent, Turner is a half match for Brennan. “This type of bone marrow transplant is a haplo indentical transplant, meaning half match. Each parent is a ‘haplo’ or half match for their child. St. Jude’s is quite adept at this type of transplant. I was honored to be able to donate the gift of life to Brennan,” Turner recalls.
The third transplant coupled with follow-up donor lymphocyte infusions took hold when a latent virus reactivated in Brennan’s little body and wiped out the entire third graft. “Talk about an ambush. We were devastated. Brennan’s doctors said they believed they had won the greater war against Brennan’s leukemia but feared that they were losing the immediate battle due to aplastic anemia,” Turner stingingly recalls.
The doctors at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital proposed a 4th transplant in 18 months for the mighty warrior, Brennan, who would celebrate his 3rd birthday in a row in the hospital. The Band of Brothers were down, but they were not out. Brennan led the way onto the new battlefield. Tara was chosen as the donor this time, another haplo transplant, but the stem cells would be harvested through her peripheral blood stream allowing for a larger harvest and, hopefully, resulting in a fast engraftment.
Mission accomplished. The 4th transplant engrafted in record time, just 7 days. Although Brennan took a detour to the ICU for engraftment syndrome, he pulled out of his multi organ failure like the warrior he is. Christopher, who had run across a Purple Heart at an Army Surplus store during a trip back to Augusta, commemorated Brennan’s success by awarding him the Purple Heart.
Brennan’s spirit remains an inspiration to all who meet him. Determined, he works through all his treatments in the hospital. The Band of Brothers remain united. “They are the best medicine. Brennan and his brothers are a testimony to the faith and perseverance embodied by the mantra ‘Press On,’” says Tara.