Brandon Weeden stood on Valentine’s Day before a crowd in a meeting room at the Children’s Hospital at OU Medical Center — in front of a crimson and cream backdrop, no less — and got choked up.
This always seems to happen when the former Oklahoma State star quarterback talks about Gavin Kuykendall, an energetic 7-year-old boy sitting in a chair about 10 feet away and proudly wearing a Cleveland Browns jersey with Weeden’s name on the back.
Underneath, Gavin’s got a pacemaker in his chest, the result of the most recent of four heart surgeries he underwent as a newborn, toddler and young child.
Minutes later, Gavin would tell the crowd that Weeden was his best friend.
“I get a frog in my throat every time,” Weeden said later. “That’s why I couldn’t talk up there, because I was so emotional.”
The relationship between this little boy and an NFL quarterback sparked something bigger. Since becoming a pro, Weeden has been a driving force behind an initiative to attract a pediatric heart surgeon back in Oklahoma, so the estimated 200 children who needed to go out of state for serious care each year could instead stay home.
On Valentine’s Day, the Children’s Hospital at OU Medical Center announced that dream had been realized, with Dr. Harold Burkhardt leaving the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. to join the staff as the Director of Pediatric Cardiovascular Surgery and Medical Director of Pediatric Cardiovascular Surgical Services
Weeden’s professional life has been rocky since leaving OSU, with the Browns’ front office and coaching staff a consistently revolving door and Weeden’s own injuries and spotty play resulting in significant time on the bench.
But Gavin keeps life in perspective.
“He’s kind of like my son that’s not my son,” Weeden said. “We’ve gone through a lot a lot together. We’ve spent a lot of time together …
“He’s a cool little kid with a lot of swag. He’s a stud.”
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Gavin’s parents, Faith and Adam, found out when Faith was about 20 weeks pregnant that Gavin had hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a congenital defect where the left side of the heart does not develop properly.
Their doctors in Tulsa told Faith and Adam they had three options after Gavin was born in October of 2006: a three-stage surgery, a transplant surgery or hospice care at home. After researching, they decided on Option 1, but needed to go to the Children’s Hospital at OU Medical Center for the procedures.
And they knew Gavin may not survive the first surgery.
“We were obviously devastated,” Faith said. “But we also believe in God and miracles. We just prayed that he would be healed, or even if that meant surgical intervention, that he would still be healed.
“We just had faith in God that he would take care of everything. That’s what helped us through the most.”
Dr. Peter Pastuszko performed the first surgery when Gavin was five days old and the second at three months.
After that, however, Pastuszko moved to a hospital in San Diego, and suddenly there was no in-state surgeon to perform Gavin’s third procedure.
So Gavin, Faith and Adam followed Pastuszko — who clearly knew Gavin’s case best — to California for Gavin’s final surgery at 21/2 years old. A few years later, when Gavin’s heart rate slowed and he needed a pacemaker implanted, the family made that trip again for another surgery.
Meanwhile, Weeden’s wife, Melanie, and Adam had become fast friends while working together at a company that sold DHL shipping services to small businesses. In between the cold calls while inside the three-person office, Melanie began to learn of Gavin’s condition and the struggles his family were going through to get proper care.
“I would go home and tell Brandon, ‘I just cannot believe this family is going through this. They’re so young and dealing with so much,’” Melanie said. “My heart really went out to them.”
So Brandon and Melanie started spending more time with the Kuykendalls. And there was an immediate bond between Brandon and Gavin.
Gavin will go into Brandon’s office, where a lot of his football memorabilia is on display, and throw on a helmet. They play golf together, where Brandon displays tons of patience while Gavin learns the game. They act like typical boys while playing outside.
“You can tell that Gavin just loves Brandon and looks up to him, and Brandon loves him and looks up to him as well,” Melanie said. “Gavin’s a little guy, but he’s been through so much, more than most people could handle. But he’s been so resilient.