Attending one of America’s military academies means the possibility of one day being in combat. In Brennan Bergeron’s case, it wouldn’t be his first life-and-death struggle.
Long before the Youngsville teen had ever heard of a place called West Point, he was in an entirely different kind of battle at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Because he won it, he’s now begun his appointment to the U.S. Military Academy.
St. Jude has no records to indicate whether Bergeron is the first of its former patients to receive such an appointment, said Summer Freeman, senior media relations specialist at the hospital in Memphis, Tenn. But, it is surely rare, if only because few qualify for the nation’s elite military schools, and blessedly few children have the life-threatening cancers that St. Jude was created to treat.
Bergeron was a month shy of his fourth birthday when he began experiencing abdominal pain. He was diagnosed with a hernia, but during the operation his surgeon noticed something else.
“He found he had swollen lymph glands in his groin area and removed a couple of them and did a frozen section right away and said, ‘There’s a 90 percent chance there’s nothing there but we want to send it off,’” said Donna Bergeron, his mother.
But it was acute lymphocytic leukemia, and Dr. Sheila Moore, a Baton Rouge oncologist, told the Bergerons to take him immediately to St. Jude.
“Once you walk in those doors that first day at St. Jude, you become a part of the family, which we still are,” said Keith Bergeron, Brennan’s father.
That was April 9, 1997. For the next year, the Bergerons spent far more time in Memphis than Youngsville. His treatments caused him to retain so much fluid that clothes bought for him at the time still fit him in second grade, his mother said.
“Like most kids, he didn’t know how sick he was,” she said. There are parts of the hospital that he remembers, but there’s a lot he doesn’t, which is a blessing, too, that he was young enough that he doesn’t remember … the eight-hour, 16-hour transfusion days, just being so sick.”
“I remember that I was always — not weak but I always felt drained,” Brennan Bergeron said. “I always wanted to sleep. I lost not all of my hair but some of it due to the chemo and the treatment associated with it.”
He made friends at St. Jude among the other patients, including one, Ben Leblanc, of Rayne, he still keeps in touch with. Not all of them were as fortunate.
“A lot of my friends that I had up there when I was little, one day I’d be playing with them, and the next day, my parents said, ‘Oh, they’re not here any more,’” he said. “I didn’t understand that concept, because they had passed away, and I didn’t understand that I would never be able to see them again.”
Although he returned home after about a year and a half in Memphis, the chemo treatments continued until Sept. 24, 1999, and Brennan only attended two weeks of kindergarten, having to stay home because his immune system was too weakened to be exposed to groups of children.
By second grade, though, Brennan had caught up physically with his peers, Keith Bergeron said.
As a sophomore at Teurlings Catholic High School in Lafayette, Bergeron expressed interest in the Army, and a teacher suggested he investigate West Point.
“I fell in love with it, and from that day, that was where I was going to school,” he said. “I knew I would do it.”
It didn’t hurt that a Teurlings student a year ahead of Bergeron, Josh Cortez, also was seeking a West Point appointment, and he gave Bergeron advice. Bergeron received recommendations from U.S. Rep. Boustany and U.S. Sen. David Vitter, and he left for West Point on June 26.
The military culture appeals to Bergeron.
“I’m a very structured person,” he said. “I like to have everything in order. The Army is a very structured, very time-scheduled lifestyle. That’s the way I’ve always been. Even as a little kid, I was always like that. Everything had to be perfect. I’m still like that.
“It’s based on core values. My family has always had strong core values, strong morals, and I appreciate people who have the same lifestyle.”