A version of this story appears in the Sunday Life section of The Oklahoman.
After their son’s battle with cancer, Edmond family supports Toby Keith Foundation’s OK Kids Korral
After helping with the groundbreaking of the Toby Keith Foundation’s OK Kids Korral last year, 5-year-old leukemia survivor Brock Hart joined country music star Toby Keith on Thursday at the grand opening of the $9 million home-away-from-home for Oklahoma families battling pediatric cancer.
A wide grin stretching across his little face, Brock Hart dashed across the circle drive, a tiny marshmallow clutched in his tiny outstretched hand.
It was an offering for the “marshmallow man.” Also known as Toby Keith.
The country music superstar grinned back as he hoisted the 5-year-old into his burly arms and then shifted to shake hands with Jay Hart, the Edmond boy’s father.
“To him, Toby Keith’s just a person,” Jay Hart said. “A guy that he hangs out with and has marshmallows with.”
To Brock’s parents, Keith is the philanthropist-dreamer behind the OK Kids Korral, a home-away-from-home for Oklahoma families fighting pediatric cancer.
The Harts and Keith were reunited Thursday at the grand opening celebration for the 25,000-square-foot lodge on the south end of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. With 16 rooms, a gourmet kitchen, outdoor playground, indoor playroom and other amenities, the $9 million OK Kids Korral was designed to provide housing and respite for pediatric cancer patients and their families seeking care at The Children’s Hospital at OU Medical Center and other nearby facilities.
“I can tell by looking at him, he’s doing a lot better. And he’s not been back in the hospital,” Keith said after Brock and his father joined him in the ceremonial ribbon cutting. “His dad said, ‘It’s bittersweet that we’re not gonna get to stay here, but it’s awesome that we don’t have to.’ You don’t want to have to come here, but if you do, then we’ve got the facility.”
On a May day in 2012, Brock, then 3, nearly upstaged the country music superstar at the groundbreaking for the OK Kids Korral.
“When we did the groundbreaking, Brock wasn’t eating much of anything, but he would eat marshmallows,” Jay Hart said. “Brock was sitting on my lap and then there was a little spot he was supposed to sit in and then Toby was sitting next to him. … Toby notices I’m feeding him marshmallows, so Toby reaches his hand out. Brock hands him a marshmallow, so through the rest of the groundbreaking, they’re just swapping marshmallows.”
The tiny toddler who happily helped Keith, Mayor Mick Cornett and other dignitaries with last year’s ceremonial turning of the earth looked much different from the action-packed boy he has become.
On Oct. 6, 2009, just a few weeks before first birthday, Brock was diagnosed with leukemia and spent the next four months in Children’s Hospital as he battled cancer and a life-threatening fungal infection. He endured 119 consecutive days in the hospital, seven weeks in the pediatric intensive care unit, a week on a ventilator, nine surgeries — and that was just in the first year and a half or so of treatment.
“It’s 13 different surgeries now,” said Brock’s mother, Vanessa Hart. “He just had his last one in September … he was seven months off treatment. This last one was to remove his port, which is where they get all their chemo through. He also had his feeding tube taken out; he’s had a feeding tube since he was 1, and he’s finally learned to eat enough that he doesn’t have to use it.”
Although he will continue with regular clinic visits and checkups — he won’t be considered cured until he is cancer-free for five years — Brock got to ring the bell signifying the end of his cancer treatment in February. Among the friends and relatives who crowded into the hospital room was Toby Keith, who gave the boy a signed, child-size acoustic guitar.
“Hey, watch what I can do,” Brock said, aiming a small basketball at a miniature hoop and then laughingly chasing down his own rebound.
“I’m Westbrook. My dad’s Kevin Durant.”
On a recent afternoon at their Edmond home, the devoted Thunder fan also tossed around a neon green football with his dad, played with his toy fire truck and strummed his autographed guitar.
“Rock on, dude,” Jay Hart said.
Brock’s battle with cancer left more than just the scars where his port and feeding tube were removed. The fungal infection that almost killed him left him blind in one eye and forced doctors to remove part of one lung. He has a limited diet and sees a feeding therapist weekly because the development of his normal eating habits was waylaid.
Still, to see him run and play and even wrestle with his sisters, Jaycie, 7, and Reese, 2, feels like an almost indescribable blessing.
“When he had cancer, it really was like he was a different child,” Vanessa Hart said. “Watching him play is a joy to us. We don’t take it for granted because there was so long that he couldn’t play. He was too sick to play. So to see him get to do normal kid stuff, it makes us so happy.”
Bridging the gap
During the first four months of Brock’s hospitalization, his parents would meet on the crosswalk between the parking garage and The Children’s Hospital and trade places. One would stay with Brock at the hospital and the other one would go home and be with their oldest daughter.
“It was five, 10 minutes. Every now and then we would get Subway and sit … between the hospital and the parking lot in the walkway and that’s where we would have dinner,” he said.
They got involved with the Toby Keith Foundation and the building of the OK Kids Korral because they hope it will help others swap painful separations and sandwiches on the ground with more family dinners and playtime. Along with 12 overnight suites, the lodge has four dayrooms for metro area families like the Harts to have a respite from the hospital – together.
“It’s just amazing,” Jay Hart said Thursday after touring the OK Kids Korral. “If you look at what we went through at the hospital, and you think of all the aspects that ‘we wish we could have had the opportunity to do this,’ or ‘we wish this would have been available to us,’ yeah, it’s all here. Every bit of that is here.”
TO KNOW MORE
For more information on the Toby Keith Foundation and the OK Kids Korral, go to www.tobykeithfoundation.org.