SHOREWOOD – Many parents know this scenario: a child bumps his head, a lump appears.
In the case of 9-year-old Brandon Otte of Shorewood, the lump didn’t disappear. A CT scan revealed an abnormality, so Brandon was sent to a neurologist at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago.
The neurologist diagnosed a tumor above Brandon’s left eye.
“I was shocked,” said Jeff Otte, Brandon’s father and a lieutenant/paramedic at the Frankfort Fire Department. “I was not expecting that.”
Brandon, the oldest of Jeff’s seven children, has Langerhans cell histiocytosis (LCH). This is a rare cancer that causes an excess of white blood cells to accumulate in the body and form tumors, also known as lesions, Jeff said.
The lump had appeared in December 2015. Surgery to remove the lesion was scheduled for the end of January 2016, Jeff said. Since shortly before the surgery, Jeff has been caring for all seven children under age 10 on his own.
The children are Brandon, 9; Julie, 7; Natalie, 6; Emilie, 4; Callie, 3; and Noah, who has autism and is nonverbal, 2; and Benjamin, 16 months. Jeff said he doesn’t have much extended family except for his sister, Cindy McDorman of Galesburg, who was happy to help out.
McDorman herself is no stranger to health challenges. She’s had two surgeries to remove aneurysms above her optic nerve – the first when she was 21 years old and two months pregnant and the second seven years ago.
“When Brandon found out he had to have surgery, he said, ‘Aunt Cindy, you’ve already had brain surgery,’” McDorman said. ‘“Will you come hold my hand?’”
After surgery, Brandon began 52 weeks of chemotherapy, which he will complete in early 2017, Jeff said. In April, the family faced another health scare. Cindy was diagnosed with a rare breast cancer, Paget disease. In May, she had a double mastectomy.
But Cindy is now in remission and staying at the Otte home about one week each month, she said. Jeff’s ability to manage impresses her, as does Brandon’s fortitude.
“I’ve never seen the strength Brandon has to fight all this stuff,” McDorman said.
Community support, outreach
Jeff said various groups have arranged Christmas presents and various holiday activities to keep the season festive for the children. On Dec. 26, the family leaves for Disneyland in California, courtesy of the Make a Wish Foundation, Jeff said.
Despite the cancer, Brandon’s spirits are great and his prognosis is good, Jeff said.
“He’s strong; he’s a fighter,” Jeff said. “The only times he’s missed school were chemo days and a couple times he was sick and we just had to keep him home. Four days after surgery he was back in school. He wanted to go back.”
Jeff listed the rest of his support system: neighbors, staff at Troy School District 30-C, the Joliet Park District (where some of his children attend after-school activities) and even The Village Christian Church in Minooka – which Jeff said he and his family joined in September.
Nick Sandeno, The Village’s life groups pastor, said several of the families have befriended the Ottes and have provided meals and childcare. Sandeno said church members are brainstorming other ways they can help in the short and long term.
Sandeno was especially admiring of Jeff’s ability to navigate this challenging time in his family’s life.
“He’s remarkably patient and kind,” Sandeno said. “He faces more than anyone I know.”
In August, Jeff created a Go Fund Me page with a goal of $10,000. As of Thursday, the amount was raised was just $3,395.
Jeff said his main financial need is not money for medical bills – he has phenomenal insurance, Jeff said – but to pay his full-time and part-time nannies, so Jeff can continue working his job and keep the insurance for his kids.
A firefighter since 1998 in Crestwood, Jeff came to Frankfort in 2005. During that time, Jeff taught a cadet program for youth age 16 to 21 and returned to school to get his bachelor’s degree in fire management, taking classes at Joliet Junior College through a program at Southern Illinois University, Jeff said.
“I had to stop last December when this happened,” Jeff said, referring to Brandon’s cancer. “I will go back and finish.”
Jeff said his father, a former volunteer firefighter, inspired his career choice, as he did his love for teaching and interacting with the public. Sometimes Jeff brings Brandon to the firehouse to visit, since Brandon wants to be a firefighter, too, one day.
“That makes me happy.” Jeff said.
To donate to Jeff Otte and his family, visit www.gofundme.com/GoForwardOtteKids.
To follow Brandon Otte’s story. visit BrandonStrong1011 on Facebook