Big-game Braylyn runs out the clock on cancer

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erep braylyn smile a mile practice 1000pxBraylyn Peterson, her dad Tim (at right) and outside linebacker Jamarcus Jones (left) at the Blazers' football practice facility on Thursday, Sept. 14. Jones will wear Braylyn's name on the back of his jersey in the Blazers' game against Louisiana on Sept. 16. Photo by ANDREA MABRY | University Relations

Media contact: Alicia Rohan

The average UAB football player is roughly 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighs some 230 pounds. Braylyn Peterson, who will make her first start for the Blazers on Sept. 16 against the University of Louisiana, is considerably smaller.

The Braylyn Peterson who takes the field at Protective Stadium will not be the 7-year-old cancer survivor and first grader at Moody Elementary School, but it will be her name on the jersey of an actual UAB football player: #13, outside linebacker Jamarcus Jones. And compared with what Braylyn and her parents have been through over the past two years, the rough and tumble of a football game is child’s play.

rep peterson family beach 550pxTim and Ashley Peterson with Braylyn (left) and Charlee (right). Tim works at The Kirklin Clinic; Ashley had to quit her job soon after Braylyn was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in May 2021. Braylyn is one of 100 young cancer survivors who will be honored during UAB Football's Sept. 16 game against the University of Louisiana at Protective Stadium.
Image courtesy Sandprints Photography
Since 2017, the Blazers have worn jerseys in one game per season featuring the names of pediatric patients at Children’s Harbor, which provides counseling, education and respite to children with serious illnesses and their families. This season, new Head Coach Trent Dilfer wanted to extend the honor to more children. Braylyn is one of 100 young cancer survivors affiliated with Camp Smile-a-Mile, which provides activities to pediatric cancer patients and their families at Children’s of Alabama and other services to families. In addition to the Camp Smile-a-Mile game Sept. 16, UAB players will wear the names of Children’s Harbor patients on their jerseys for the Oct. 7 game against University of South Florida and the Nov. 4 game against Florida Atlantic University.

Coming to the end of a nightmare

Just before and after she is celebrated at Protective Stadium, Braylyn has some even more meaningful milestones. On Sept. 12, the week of the Louisiana game, she will have her last chemo infusion. Sept. 28 is the last day she will take any oral chemo medicine. And Oct. 10, she will celebrate the end of her treatment at Children’s of Alabama with the ceremonial ringing of the bell.

“That will be her first non-medicated visit to the clinic in more than two years,” said Tim Peterson, Braylyn’s father, who is a patient care coordinator in the hepatology department at UAB’s Kirklin Clinic. “It is thrilling that this nightmare is soon to come to an end.”

The nightmare began May 10, 2021. For the previous 11 days, Braylyn had been running a fever that just would not go away. Her pediatrician tested for strep throat, pneumonia and a urinary tract infection; but everything was negative, and the fever kept coming back. After another awful weekend, the Petersons took Braylyn back to her pediatrician Monday, May 10, and soon had stunning news. “The doctor came in and said, ‘We’ve talked to hepatology over at Children’s — we need you to go over there,’” Peterson said.

Story continues after photos

erep camp smile a mile Braylyn selects 1000pxAt the practice on Thursday, Braylyn and the other children being honored in the Blazers' Camp Smile-a-Mile game found out which players would wear their jerseys. Here, Braylyn and Jamarcus pose with Braylyn's mother, Ashley, and sister, Charlee. Photo by ANDREA MABRY | University Relations

erep braylyn jamarcus jones 550pxBraylyn and Jamarcus chat while little sister Charlee takes in the scene. Photo by ANDREA MABRY | University Relations

Braylyn was diagnosed with Philadelphia-like acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which at the time was a newly identified, high-risk subtype of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL. “They admitted her and started treatment that night,” Peterson said. “It was a very long and trying first year that consisted of many inpatient stays, with a few of them quite lengthy.”

Braylyn's schedule

  • Sept. 12: Last chemo infusion
  • Sept. 16: Celebrated during Blazers' game against Louisiana
  • Sept. 28: Last day for oral chemo medicine
  • Oct. 10: Ringing the bell at Children's of Alabama

The Petersons never knew when they would have to rush off to the hospital with Braylyn, or how long they would be gone. One of her inpatient stays lasted more than a month. “Ashley’s parents played the role of parents to our youngest daughter, Charlee, for the entire first year,” Peterson said. “We were lucky if we saw Charlee once a month.”

Employee has unique appreciation for patient experience

Peterson, who joined UAB this February, does “all of the front-end work with specialty hepatitis C drugs — prior authorizations, appeals and so on,” he said. His own experience gives him a unique appreciation for all that patients and families experience.

rep braylyn moody peterson 450pxFor Braylyn, school photos came with a hospital gown.
Image courtesy Tim Peterson
Braylyn lost her hair, which was to be expected. But she also dealt with multiple seizures, glaucoma and high blood pressure. Getting her weight up, and keeping it up, was a major struggle. For roughly 10 months, she had a feeding tube in her nose. “All of her care team will tell you that Braylyn is a unique case,” Peterson said. “If there has been a slight chance of anything happening in an ALL patient, it happened to her.”

Braylyn missed her entire first year of kindergarten, which should have started in fall 2021. Even after missing a significant amount of time, she still finished kindergarten last year, and this August she started first grade. Despite her wide grin, Braylyn’s first-day-of-school photos show the changes that ALL brought. “Her hair went from thin, stringy and straight to really thick and curly,” Peterson said. “They say kids’ hair does that.”

Hair was not the only thing the Petersons lost. “Without all of the support we have received, our last two years would have been impossible,” Peterson said. “Ashley has not worked a day since the diagnosis. Camp Smile-a-Mile, Sandcastle Kids and A-Team Ministries are just a few of the charity groups that have been there.”

Hard Rock Café crew steps up

So has a unique community of Hard Rock Café pin collectors. “When I was a kid, if the family would travel, my brother and I would pick up a lapel pin and a T-shirt” if there was a Hard Rock Café restaurant at their destination, Peterson said. About 10 years ago, he met a serious collector in Birmingham and got into the hobby again. “Some of the restaurants have 15 to 20 pins,” Peterson said. “There are probably in the mid–80,000s total different pins available, and I have some 800 to 900 pins at this point.”

braylyns brigade pin 500pxA custom pin made by Hard Rock Café has helped raise funds for Braylyn's care.
Image courtesy Tim Peterson
In 2018, the Petersons went on a cruise with 70-some fellow Hard Rock Café pin collectors. After Braylyn’s diagnosis, that network jumped into action to help. “Last September, they had a fundraising event, called Rock the Beach, for us in Myrtle Beach,” Peterson said. “There were collectors in Georgia and Las Vegas who had several different auctions, with people donating pins that have raised thousands of dollars.”

Hard Rock Café even made a custom pin for Braylyn’s Brigade, the Facebook group the Petersons started to update family members on her condition, which now has more than a thousand followers.

Rookie cards and community

Peterson says the whole family is excited for Braylyn’s big football game, and the chance to meet Coach Dilfer and players beforehand. “I ordered four of his rookie cards off eBay, and I plan to get him to sign them,” Peterson said. “Then I am going to mount them in a frame along with Braylyn’s jersey.”

After Oct. 10, the Petersons are just looking forward to being a normal family with two little girls again. Peterson says he would be glad to talk to any employee whose family is facing a similar situation with a pediatric cancer diagnosis. “About two months ago, I bought a scooter to ride back and forth to the parking lot,” he said. “I saw someone go by with a childhood cancer car tag and I waved. When we got to the next light, I leaned over and said, ‘I couldn’t help but notice your tag.’ She said, ‘I work at Children’s.’ I told her I had a daughter going through leukemia treatment and she said, ‘I know Braylyn!’ That sense of community is something that just helps you keep going.”