When you grow up in Augusta, Georgia, golf is just a way of life.
The yearly Masters Tournament defines our city, and it’s also provided me with some of my favorite childhood memories.
When I watched legends like Tiger Woods walk around the course, I was hooked. I wanted to emulate the confidence, focus, and greatness that I saw there first-hand, and golf quickly became my sport of choice.
My dad is also a dedicated golfer, so he always jumped at the chance to take me and my two brothers to the golf course.
When my family received life-changing medical news, though, golf quickly became the last thing on our minds.
Only a few days after his seventh birthday, my brother Brennan started to feel sick. When my family took him to the local hospital, the doctors diagnosed Brennan with acute myeloid leukemia, an extremely deadly kind of childhood cancer.
As a nine-year-old myself, I guess I didn’t really comprehend the severity of it at first.
However, as Brennan began to progress through his treatments, I quickly began to understand the severity of the situation and my role as the older brother. When it became time for Brennan’s first bone marrow transplant, I was eager to step in and potentially help get my brother back home.
Unfortunately, Brennan’s cancer relapsed, and the doctors told us to prepare for the worst. They told us we were out of options — that is, except for hospice care, Disney World, or any other end-of-life care that they could provide.
We thought that was crazy; we weren’t done fighting yet.
Thankfully, my family was able to find St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, and they agreed to bring in Brennan for treatment.
All of us moved to Memphis to support Brennan’s fight, but it wasn’t easy. I sometimes had to go weeks without seeing Brennan, and the cancer treatments zapped him of his energy even when we could visit.
One of my most vivid memories for this time was when Christopher, (my other brother) Brennan, and I would watch the war series Band of Brothers — it sounds a bit odd for boys our age, I know, but it’d take our mind off things for a while.
When you’re a third or fourth-grader going into the hospital and seeing kids your age fighting for their lives every day, it puts things in perspective.
We might not have literally been at war, but the three of us were the Simkins band of brothers, keeping our focus on the mission at hand, no matter how dark or trying our different battles became.
With every new challenge that came his way, Brennan kept fighting.
A second bone marrow transplant helped get his cancer into remission for a few months, but it soon came right back. The third transplant was a difficult one for Brennan’s body to handle, so much that he was in and out of the ICU for a while afterwards.
While the procedure for giving bone marrow doesn’t knock you out for that long, it takes a toll on the body to receive a marrow transplant.
Most children wouldn’t be able to withstand two transplants in one year; Brennan had three in just over that amount of time.
Before he went under in the ICU, we did something we’d never done before — we said our goodbyes.
I really thought I was going to lose my brother.
There was only one option left: a rare fourth bone marrow transplant, with my mother providing the bone marrow this time.
Miraculously, Brennan survived his time in the ICU, and his body finally accepted the bone marrow transplant in 2011.
It brings me so much joy to say that Brennan has been healthy ever since and that my younger brother is now a college student just like me.
Fittingly, Brennan is going to college in the same city that saved his life: Memphis.
It’s hard to put into words what all of this means to me.
To my family.
To all of us.
Obviously, the entire experience with Brennan’s leukemia changed our family, and our priorities. When we moved back to Augusta, there was so much relief to finally be back home.
Since my focus on golf had waned during Brennan’s treatment, playing golf soon became that outlet for me to find myself.
Being out there in the open air on the course is a lot different than being in hospital waiting rooms. I could hit golf balls all day just being in my own element, something that continues to this day at Presbyterian College.
Brennan’s medical fight also brought us closer together as a family, so much that I’m proud to say we now fight on behalf of other families suffering the same challenges.
I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:14 NIV).
I bring up that Bible verse because it’s the inspiration for the Press On foundation, our non-profit organization that raises money for childhood cancer research.
Much of the credit belongs to Stephen and Erin Chance, who founded the organization in 2006 and invited our family to join the project in 2009.
We’re also blessed to be joined by our close family friends, Bob and Melanie Crawford, in 2015 after their daughter Hallie faced similar challenges with a rare brain tumor.
Golf is one of my truest passions in life, but so is the work of our foundation. To date, Press On has raised almost $4 million toward childhood cancer research, with $231,000 of that total coming last year.
I encourage you to view our website at https://pressonfund.org/ for even more details on our work.
Years later, I’m able to see how fortunate we are that Brennan survived this experience thanks to the great care at St. Jude’s.
There’s no doubt in my mind that all of our support also played a role in his recovery.
After all, the Simkins family is full of fighters.