It’s been 15 years since Robert Brooks’ daughter went into remission from leukemia, but he said he will always be grateful to the nonprofit that helped them get through it.
"For me, these folks I dealt with were the friendliest, most supportive group of individuals I ever met," said the retired staff sergeant of Special Love, a Virginia-based nonprofit that provides families of cancer patients a network of support.
Robert’s daughter, Katie, now 21, was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia at age 3 while the family was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. From there, the Army transferred them to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center so Katie could receive treatment.
"That first year, I spent (all my time) in the hospital,” said Robert, a licensed vocational nurse.
He would get off work at the hospital, meet his wife, Paula, in Katie’s room, change into a fresh uniform and spend the night with her. In the morning, the two would switch again so their only child would never be alone.
"I rarely left," he said. "That was our lives."
During that time, he heard from other families in the cancer unit about Special Love and decided to give it a shot. They quickly became regulars at parents’-weekend getaways, family camps and children’s summer camp, called Camp Fantastic. Robert said they could feel at ease leaving Katie’s side, because she was in the care of trained professionals who knew about cancer.
"When you tell people your child has cancer, they don’t know what to say, so just turn and walk away, or they just leer and stare at you," said Paula. "These people embrace the cancer. I don’t think I can put into words how normal they make you feel."
After 2½ years of chemotherapy, Katie’s cancer was in remission at age 6. In 2000, the family moved to Fort Hood and after Robert retired in 2003, they remained in Kempner. Katie is still healthy and now has a daughter of her own.
"She’s a miracle," said Robert of his 16-month-old granddaughter, proudly sharing a photo in his wallet of the smiling red-haired girl.
To give back to the organization that gave him so much hope, Robert is raising money for Special Love by running the Cactus Rose 100-Mile Endurance Run in Bandera this October.
Last year was his first attempt at the race and fundraising, but falling short on both, he said he is determined to be successful this year.
"I want to try and get $25,000. I know it’s a large amount, but so is 100 miles," he said.
During the race last year, he sprained his ankle around mile 43 and at mile 50 it was so swollen he decided to stop. He still received a medal, but this year is aiming for the belt buckle given to those who finish.
"I will do it this year, even if I have to crawl across the finish line," he said.
To train, Robert runs about 80 to 100 miles a week between his treadmill and a long weekend run, which he typically starts around 2 a.m.
"I still feel like I can do more at mile 50. It’s still hard, and I always ache. There’s no such thing as a painless run," said the 49-year-old. "When running gets hard, I think about what my daughter went through, and this is nothing. After that, putting one foot in front of the other is easy. How is that hard compared to chemo and the sickness? She went through all of that, so running 100 miles is easy."
Dave Smith, CEO of Special Love, said he is thrilled to have past campers and families give back to the organization.
"It’s inspiring that they look to the needs of other children and families going through the cancer battle and try to make that journey a little easier," he said via email.
Paula said she also hopes Robert’s efforts raise awareness of Special Love as well, especially to military families who could easily find themselves in Virginia.
"Trying to put into words what they did for us, I don’t know if I can," she said. "They make you forget about the cancer the whole time your there."
Contact Rose L. Thayer at email@example.com or (254) 501-7463. Follow her on Twitter at KDHmilitary.