The Courage of Jimmy Berents '12
Two days remained this past August before Jimmy Berents would head off to Wake Forest, his bags were already packed, and to say the 2012 Collegiate graduate was excited and raring to go is your classic understatement.
There was a catch, however, and it was a big one.
You see, when Berents was three years old, he was diagnosed with a form of cancer called aplastic large cell lymphoma, and though the disease had long been in remission, it reared its ugly head just as he was about to begin the next chapter of an already eventful and inspiring life.
While some might bemoan their fate and submit to self-pity, Berents instead handled his latest tribulation with the same courage and philosophical demeanor with which he always faced the challenges that serious illness presented.
After all, he had fought off the ravages of cancer twice before, and he was up to the test once again.
The third time, he hoped, would be the charm.
“I never really worried about it,” Berents said as he reflected on those uncertain late-summer days as he awaited his test results. “If I was sick, I’d get through it. If I wasn’t sick, I could go on to Wake Forest, and that would be fun.
"You don’t pick your choices. You just play the cards you’re dealt.”
Berents’ odyssey began on his third birthday, August 26, 1996.
“We were on vacation in the Outer Banks,” he said. “My mom found me under the kitchen table, curled up and pale and sweating and feverish.
“When I got in the pool two days later, I started thrashing and screaming because my body temperature was so low and the cold water exacerbated that.”
Upon their return to Richmond, Ginny and Ken Berents took Jimmy to the doctor. The diagnosis was flu.
When treatment proved ineffective, they headed for the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, and after a host of tests, doctors made their diagnosis of ALCL.
“During the biopsy,” Berents continued without emotion, “I flat-lined on the operating table. A nurse had to revive me.”
Thus began a long stint in the pediatric intensive care unit where for a while he was on life support.
“My oncologist ordered chemotherapy immediately,” he said. “They wished for the best, and it worked out.”
Two months after his year-long chemo regimen ended, Jimmy awoke his parents during the night and told them the disease had returned.
An MRI at Johns Hopkins proved him correct, and, at four years old, he underwent a six-week protocol that included chemo, total-body radiation, and a bone-marrow transplant.
That treatment did its job, and medication and regular monitoring put the cancer in remission until this past August.
Over the years, Berents has developed an uncommon level of physical and mental toughness that have allowed him to travel through life with a quiet intensity and understated, let’s-keep-business-as-usual attitude.
“Jimmy is amazingly courageous and has remained positive in the face of disappointing news,” said Dr. Don Small, the oncologist who has treated him from the beginning and has become a fast family friend.
“He’s taken the attitude that this is another challenge he has to overcome.
“He’s mature and wise beyond his years. It’s kids like Jimmy who inspire us. They’re our heroes.”
Each summer, Berents attends Camp Sunrise, a program at Johns Hopkins for cancer patients and survivors.
“I’ve made so many close friends,” he said. “You always know they have your back.
“It’s a very emotional experience because every year there’re kids who aren’t with you because they relapsed or died. Several of my good friends died, some not too long ago.
“You always know that however bad it gets for you, it’s always worse for someone else. You always have someone to look up to. You always have a hero. As long as there’re strong people to look up to, you don’t worry about yourself.”
So how did he develop that attitude?
“Just following others’ examples,” he said. “There’s a girl, a really good friend of mine, who had a brain tumor. She was cleared, but about a year later, she relapsed.
“She didn’t tell me, but she knew it was a terminal relapse and she wasn’t going to live more than a couple of years. She never came crying to any one of us, never pitied herself. She was always as strong as she could be.
“You learn by example. You think, if they can be strong, then I can be strong too.”
Berents has channeled his energy in a supremely positive direction, long ago became a favorite of his doctors and nurses, and sees as his mission enhancing the cause of cancer awareness.
He’s always reaching out to others on the ward, organizing movie nights and keeping spirits high. The younger kids love him for his gentle, determined ways. They speak the same language, walk the same steps. He’s all about morale.
When Johns Hopkins opened its new hospital recently, he delivered his Collegiate senior speech – on battling cancer – to a large assemblage at the pediatric oncology department.
He is one of four ambassadors for the unit, and his picture will soon appear on billboards and posters in Northern Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware under the auspices of Giant Foods.
He represents the Johns Hopkins Triple Winner Program and recently spoke at the kick-off breakfast at Camden Yards, again captivating a large audience.
He will be part of a Ken Burns documentary, scheduled for release in 2015, and based on Siddhartha Makherjee’s Pulitzer Prize winner, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
He will appear in a video marking the 40th anniversary for the Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center that showcases patients and the progress they’ve made.
Long term, he hopes to parlay his interest in business and economics into an endeavor that will directly affect cancer research.
Berents’ cancer has been in remission since January, he’s been taking an econ class at the University of Richmond, and he’s more eager than ever to head for Wake Forest in the fall. Is there a gift for you in your struggle?
“I definitely think there is,” he responded. “I didn’t think that for a while.
“I’ve realized it’s toughened me up and because of the people I’ve met, my second family, the nurses and doctors, my oncologist.
“I’ve made friends in the inpatient wing, people I’ll hopefully remain in touch with the rest of my life.
“And, of course, the friends from camp. The relationships along the way have made it all worthwhile.” You can talk about your health issues so objectively
, I said as we parted company. Do you ever worry?
“No,” he said, “I’m not worried about dying. Death isn’t scary.
“The only scary thing would be never having the opportunity to have lived. I have no regrets.”
-- Weldon Bradshaw