Reno dad, Owen Brolsma, is used to performing under pressure.
In his youth, Brolsma excelled as a baseball player at Carson High School. He was good enough to earn college scholarships to Nevada and Texas Tech, and was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates. He experienced the pressure of hitting and pitching with the game on the line.
But nothing prepared him for the pressure of delivering his son’s eulogy.
Brolsma, 32, has gone through heartbreak and adversity that many dads can’t imagine. Outliving his first-born child was the most difficult period of his life and it’s certainly changed him. But, Brolsma likes to think that it’s made him a better man, a better father and a better member of the northern Nevada community.
Today, nearly five years since his son died, Brolsma and his wife, Allie, have two healthy daughters, a life they cherish, a memory they won’t forget and a nonprofit (Friends of Brooks Foundation) they started to help families going through the same situation they did.
“Brooks really changed every fiber in me,” Owen said. “It’s one of those things that happens and it’s terrible and wonderful all at the same time. It’s one of those ‘better to have loved and lost than never have loved at all’ type of things. When you are in it, it seems to be the toughest thing in the world, but when I reminisce, I seem to mostly remember all of the good things and happy moments.”
When Owen was 15, he had already planned out many parts of his son’s life. He knew he’d have a boy. His name would be Brooks. He’d play sports, most likely baseball.
On June 5, 2012, Allie gave birth to their beautiful 5-pound, 1-ounce baby boy. But he wasn’t delivered in Reno. It was in Las Vegas, where the couple had temporarily moved two months prior because Brooks had a heart defect that would require surgery.
Brooks was placed on a ventilator upon birth. Three days later, he suffered a pulmonary hemorrhage and lost 50 percent of his blood supply.
Brooks’ first heart surgery came at 3 weeks old. When he still couldn’t breathe on his own, a tracheotomy was performed and a breathing tube was inserted into his neck.
The family returned to Reno nearly four months after Brooks was born and embarked on a life of weekly doctor appointments, pokes and medication.
When things couldn’t possibly get worse, doctors dropped another bomb: Brooks was legally blind. And deaf.
The diagnosis was CHARGE Syndrome, a condition that causes various abnormalities in eyes, ears, heart and other body parts/organs. It affects about one in 20,000 children.
“He had vision problems, hearing problems, needed a trach (tube in his neck) to breathe, needed a tube to eat,” Owen said. “It really kind of taught us a lesson in appreciation and perspective. At a point we just really celebrated the things that went well and soaked in all of the small moments.”
Six months later, the time came for a full-repair heart surgery, a procedure that the Brolsmas knew was risky, but had to be done for Brooks to live a somewhat normal life.
By then, Brooks had turned into a chubby little tike who made friends at the grocery store simply by smiling. Before bedtime, Brooks would be super playful. He’d laugh and kick his blanket up off of him. His parents busted up laughing as they watched on the monitor.
“He had one of those smiles that would just make you smile,” Owen said. “If he really got going you could hear him chuckling through his trach. At the time it was probably the most gratifying sound I had ever heard.”
Brooks inspired friends and family with his playful and positive attitude and tremendous will to fight through adversity.
For all the suffering, he deserved a break. But he didn’t get it. The full-repair heart surgery was unsuccessful.
Brooks James Brolsma died April 5, 2013. He was 10 months old.
A Father’s Love
Owen took everyone by surprise when going over funeral details with the pastor.
“I’ll deliver the eulogy,” Owen said.
Brolsma poured a glass a whiskey the night before the funeral, sat down and reflected.
“I had Brooks’ life planned out for him when I was about 15,” Owen said. “So to come full circle from that point to where we would be the next day (at the funeral) was a bizarre feeling. From where we had been, things like that didn’t happen to real people. It was something I will never forget.”
Brolsma shook off the nerves and delivered a passionate and emotional speech to the hundreds of friends and family at South Reno Methodist Church. He spoke about how Brooks made him a better person, how Brooks was the toughest person he ever knew and how his life would never be the same.
“Owen was so strong and brave from the second we found out about Brooks’ abnormal ultrasound to now, 4 and a half years after he has passed,” said Allie Brolsma, Owen’s wife of seven years. “He was our rock and he was consistently positive and strong when the rest of us felt as though everything was falling apart.”
So how did he move forward after such a tragic event? And if asked, what would he say to a father that faced the same situation?
“It’s something nobody thinks they can handle until they have to,” Brolsma said. “But you just need to keep getting up and putting one foot in front of the other. If you have a spouse, you will have to lean hard on each other.”
Every year on June 5 (Brooks’ birthday), the Brolsmas celebrate the life of their late son.
They write messages on balloons and send them up into the sky.
Owen and Allie have two happy and healthy daughters (ages 3 and 1) who are beginning to understand and appreciate the member of their family who is no longer there.
“It has become a good tradition to do with our girls and gives them a chance to remember and think about their big brother,” Owen said. “Our friends and family throughout the area send balloons up, too.”
Owen’s philosophy and approach to parenting with his daughters is different. His experience with Brooks has made him more present.
He really enjoys the small things – working in the yard, sitting by the fire pit, playing with the dogs and the little conversations.
“I have the same frustrations every dad does with the crying fits, blow-out diapers, plates of food getting tossed in my face, etc.,” he said. “I often have to remind myself when I do get frustrated that there was a time I was envious of that stuff. The small stuff really just hits home and makes me appreciate all that I have.”
Friends of Brooks Foundation
The medical bills for Brooks were in the seven-figure range. The struggle is real for parents with kids who have disabilities and special needs.
Two months before Brooks was born, the Brolsmas had to leave their jobs, house and all responsibilities in Reno to make sure their son received specialized care in Las Vegas.
The Brolsmas admit they were fortunate. Family members helped organize a golf tournament in 2012 and raised a significant amount of money that eased the debt burden.
“Financial stress cripples healthy families, so to not have that burden benefitted us greatly,” Owen said. “That is why we created Friends of Brooks. We have a chance to honor those who helped us and we also help other families that are realizing some pretty stressful realities.”
The mission of Friends of Brooks is to alleviate some of the stress for northern Nevada families who have to travel out of town for their children’s specialized medical needs. The 501(c)(3) provides financial support to assist with travel, expenses, and the costs of having to maintain a separate household while traveling.
To date, the foundation has given away nearly $40,000 to 19 families.
The golf tournament became an annual event and the main fundraiser. The next one is scheduled for Oct. 14 at The Club at Arrowcreek.
“We have made it our mission to provide financial assistance to these families because that is an area we can really make an impact,” Owen said. “We know what families are experiencing and the financial burden that goes with the territory. It can often follow them around for years. We can help families focus on the things that are really important.”
A Bright Future
While it’s difficult to comprehend the grief Owen and his family have gone through, it’s admirable to see the positivity and strength shown when discussing that grief.
Families can fall apart after a child dies. But not the Brolsmas.
They miss Brooks. They miss him a lot. But they’ve chosen to find strength through purpose, through family, through love.
“(This experience) has taught me the importance of community first and foremost,” Owen said. “Allie and I have a huge family and friend network that still supports us and I couldn’t imagine going through all of this without them.”