Community's caring is unbeatable news

December 12, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

WHAT DID Van Brooks say right after the respirator used to ventilate his lungs was no longer needed? "You know, he wasn't worried about himself. He said, `Mom, Dad. I don't want to put this on you,' " Van Brooks Sr. said about his 16-year-old son.

"It was not about being selfish. It was about thinking about other people. To say what he said, my belief is strong. That's why I feel in my heart things are going to be OK. God didn't put him there to make him suffer like that. I tell him this is just a stumbling block, a big obstacle, but I believe it will be OK."

What was the first thing Van Brooks ate after the feeding tube was ditched and his mouth watered for real food for the first time since Sept. 25, the day the Loyola Blakefield defensive back was involved in a collision on the football field, jamming his vertebrae and crumpling, needing to be airlifted to emergency surgery, paralyzed? The horror of the crisis appears over, the painful and daunting reality of recovery is tempered by small victories - like lunch.

"What was it, baby, that he ate?" the father asks his wife, Shelly Brooks, who says something in the background.

"Right. A grilled cheese sandwich. He didn't need no kind of flavoring. He didn't need salt. He didn't need pepper. After not having anything to eat for so long, everything he eats tastes so good," the father said.

"To see him lay there in that bed, doomed, to seeing little things like his arm move, to see him gain a little muscle control so he doesn't hit himself in the head. He couldn't talk at one point. Now, he's talking. Now, he's eating."

Now, the junior is operating a wheelchair, careening down the hospital halls. It's rigged with special forks and spoons to let Brooks feed himself - a modicum of independence that feels like progress.

Now, the three-sport star is pushing doctors to accelerate physical therapy, calling on his athleticism, his intelligence, his pride, his will to one day get vertical, to walk.

Families, friends and doctors are reluctant to discuss Brooks' prognosis. There's discussion about consulting with one of the country's leading spinal cord researchers, Dr. John McDonald, who last month joined the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.

In the meantime, the family has been encouraged by incremental improvements in the boy's muscle tone and arm movements.

"He's got all kinds of attachments," Brooks Sr. said. "He wants as much as he can get. He's ready to push himself. He's getting stronger and I tell him, you'll never know what you can handle if you never try. I tell him a man isn't finished when he's defeated; he's defeated when he quits."

There doesn't appear to be any quit on this team; from son to father and mother, to school friends to new friends, like Ray Lewis, the Ravens linebacker who has told Van Brooks enough times he's hardly alone in this fight.

A week ago, a story about a paralyzed West Baltimore football player for whom his high school was going to hold a huge fund-raiser was knocked off the front page of the sports section of this newspaper.

Instead, the story about Van Brooks and the auction held for him at Loyola Blakefield ran on an inside page. These things happen. Big names from the pro ranks trump "small" stories about local high school athletes.

But how the Van Brooks story got bumped inside seemed particularly odd.

See, it was "good" news about a kid from West Baltimore being helped by his friends, his city, bumped by "bad" news about another kid from West Baltimore.

It was a coincidence, but it happened. Van Brooks and NBA star Carmelo Anthony crossed paths - sort of.

Of all days, Anthony's appearance in a homemade DVD aimed at scaring police informants about drug dealers came to light just as the Loyola community was preparing to raise money for Brooks.

With the news about Anthony's appearance in the video, so, too, were raised all the implications about how a rich, revered, pro athlete who grew up in troubled West Baltimore lent his support, inadvertently or not, to this dangerous street campaign.

In the world of news, this insight into Baltimore's drug scene courtesy of Anthony's appearance seemed to have more points worthy of examination than a "nice" story about how a huge swath of Baltimoreans had rallied to support Brooks.

But it's worth thinking about the juxtaposition: The Van Brooks story was inspirational in that thousands of Baltimoreans had responded to the Loyola community with about $500,000 (so far) in donations, gifts and corporate sponsorship. It's only a start in paying the current medical costs and the ones ahead, but it was a demonstration of commitment, faith and support.

"Overwhelming," Brooks Sr. said the other day about the fund-raiser in which a puppy was auctioned for $4,000 and a Maryland basketball signed by coach Gary Williams sold for $3,500.

There were more than 300 items auctioned. Organizers are still waiting for a final tally.

"It in itself was a lifetime event," Brooks Sr. said.

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