Brave cancer fighter inspired hundreds to join bone marrow network

I’ve tried to start this column 100 times. Each time I attempt to write about the death of brave 10-year-old cancer fighter Brandon Rayner, I always return to thoughts of my Amelia and her cancer struggle.

I’ve always known we were the lucky ones. We were close to losing our daughter, and I remind myself each morning how fortunate I am to have her. Now I am reminded again.

Our worst days were nothing compared to what Brandon’s parents, Jo and Moe Rayner, are enduring. We know how blessed we are to have the privilege of carrying on.

• • •

Brandon Rayner was a great kid. Ask anyone who met him. He battled a brain tumor and leukemia with courage, character, and a sense of humor. He brightened the lives of the people he met.

“He was the first little guy that I met,” Candlelighters’ Jennifer Bradley says. “He changed my life.”

Dawn Gibbons added, “Losing Brandon Rayner was a great loss to our state as he gave everyone that met him hope.”

And when Brandon decided to set a world record for collecting the most business cards, no one in his family or circle of caregivers doubted he’d reach his goal.

He gathered more than 900,000 cards in less than a year. Thousands more remained uncounted at the time of his death on Christmas Eve at Phoenix Children’s Hospital of a lung infection following a second bone marrow transplant.

He died before reaching his personal goal. I suppose technically that’s true. Officially, those 900,000-plus cards aren’t yet a record recognized by Guinness. But, for heaven’s sakes, if that’s not a world record, it certainly ought to be.

Brandon might not have realized it at the time, and Guinness probably wouldn’t acknowledge it, but he set a far more important record in the final months of his young, difficult life. It was because of Brandon’s efforts that Southern Nevada enjoyed its best day in the collection of potential bone marrow donors. Hundreds of locals went through the painless process — simply rubbing a swab on the inside of the cheek — after learning of Brandon’s amazing story of courage.

“He did such a great job at getting the message out,” says Angela Berg, director of programs and services at Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation of Southern Nevada. “In Southern Nevada, we’ve signed up more than 1,000 people since June when he was diagnosed.”

Brandon rallied the jaded troops in the media and medical communities. He seemed to understand his efforts were not only for his benefit.

“The best memory I have of that little boy is of his bright blue eyes,” Berg says. “I was so inspired by his strength. He was the strongest young man, and very matter of fact.”

When it came time to seek bone marrow donors, he said, ” ‘Who do we tell? How do we get it done?’ Even at his worst, when he was feeling his crummiest, he always still tried to put on a smile.”

• • •

One of the cruel tricks intense cancer treatment can play is that it leaves a person more susceptible to other cancers. While one cancer is cured, another is encouraged. It’s the risk sick kids and their parents accept as they claw and scratch for life.

Brandon beat a brain tumor, but then was afflicted by leukemia. The blood cancer necessitated a bone marrow transplant, but Brandon had no sibling donors.

I can only hope that hundreds more valley residents take the time to honor this child’s memory by contacting the local Candlelighters office and volunteering to become part of the National Bone Marrow Donor Network.

A few months ago, in keeping with his strength of character and upbringing, Brandon made sure to send me a thank you card after I wrote something about the bone marrow drive. I will cherish that note forever.

But, my dear boy, it is we who owe you and your family thanks.

Without Brandon, much of the community would have been unaware of the urgent importance of expanding bone marrow registration in Southern Nevada. These numbers are truly important. Thanks to one young boy’s efforts, many lives will be saved.

Brandon’s brave legacy far exceeds the gaudiest Guinness World Record.

john L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith/.

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