Hoping to turn bad news into good

A fundraiser for Rory Brennan Zuba

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"You know the old expression, 'What else can happen?'" said Regina Brennan. "We've stopped saying that."

That's because it keeps happening. It's been a tough decade for the Brennan and Zuba families. Of the six Brennan girls who grew up on the 600 block of South Ridgeland Avenue (mom still lives there), two died of heart attacks caused by blood clots, due to a Protein C deficiency, both at the age of 43. Heart disease runs in the family. Dad died after six heart attacks, three strokes and open heart surgery at the age of 81, but he may have been the carrier.

The deficiency wasn't diagnosed until after Eileen and Trish had died. The other girls have since been tested, said Regina, and fortunately, none have the condition. Their mother doesn't have the deficiency either, but she had two sisters who died of heart attacks in their 20s. Protein C deficiency, they have been told, usually strikes women in their early 40s and also young children.

In fact, it may have contributed to the death of Trish's daughter, Erin, whose death in 1990 at the age of 18 months was attributed to Hemolitic Uremic Syndrome.

Trish died on Jan. 1, 1999, just as the Chicago area was getting buried beneath 20 inches of snow. Perhaps that contributed to her husband Tom's decision to move out to California with his two sons immediately afterward. Tom was a professional fundraiser and Trish had her own public relations business. They met while both were doing work for the American Cancer Society.

After a few years in California, Tom moved his family to Rockford where he grew up and still has family.

This past summer, Tom walked into his son's bedroom and found Rory, 13, having a seizure. For three months they thought it was encephalitis. "They did spinal taps, MRIs. They couldn't diagnose it," said Regina.

Finally they went to Children's Memorial in Chicago, which suspected a brain tumor. The following day, they did surgery and removed his left temporal lobe. The test came back positive for cancer.

Rory had a stroke during surgery, which left him with an impaired right hand and slurred speech. Remarkably, said Regina, he regained use of his right leg and was walking within days of the surgery.

In December, an MRI confirmed that the cancer had returned. The prognosis wasn't good. With chemotherapy and radiation, 18 months. Six months without it.

Tom went to the Mayo Clinic and St. Jude's looking for hope. He finally found a doctor in Houston with an alternative approach. Rory is getting the treatments, but, of course, non-mainstream procedures aren't covered by insurance.

So the Brennan family decided to organize a fundraiser.

"We wanted to do something positive," said Regina. "We're calling it 'Rory's Celebration of Hope.' The Brennan family members are all still here, so we decided to call on our community and family and friends."

Molly Malone's, 7652 W. Madison St. in Forest Park, is providing the hall for the event which will take place from noon to 3 p.m. this Sunday. For $30, you get food and soft drinks, plus a cash bar. Entertainment will be provided by Amy Kelly on acoustic guitar. Irish dancing is also promised.

"It's a family-oriented celebration," Regina said. "We thought people could come here after church."

The family is hoping that Tom, Rory and Sean, 9, will make the trip from Rockford, but it depends how well Rory is feeling.

If he can't make it, people can still contact him through a website set up for terminally ill patients (http://www2.caringbridge.org/il/rory/). It contains a link to Rory's personal e-mail, so well-wishers can post comments.

"Our biggest concern is that the brain cancer not define who Rory is," said Regina. "He really is our special gift. He's very artistic and gifted. He loves Einstein and science and astronomy and goes to a gifted school in Rockford. He's interested in Japanese culture and was intrigued, to say the least, by our past presidential election. And he loves poetry. Rory is a sweet soul."

The Brennans and Zubas want to make this a "happy, hopeful event," Regina said. "We're looking for some good news for my family."

Maybe this is what else can happen.

? For more information on Sunday's fundraiser, call Regina Brennan at 312/593-1898. Checks can be made payable to the Rory Brennan Zuba Medical Assistance Fund and sent to 407 Ashland, River Forest 60305.

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