A community is in mourning following the tragic loss of a young hero yesterday.
After a long and courageous battle with brain cancer that inspired thousands of people, 9-year-old Brandon Dominguez died at 5:07 a.m. Monday morning.
"He fought very hard for a very long time and he overcame a lot of obstacles and barriers that were put in his way," said South Brunswick Board of Education member Dan Boyle, a friend of the Dominguez family and frequent visitor to Brandon during his illness. "I was fortunate enough on Sunday to spend a few moments with Brandon. When I think of his life, I'm truly blessed to have gotten to know this kid. I told him that we as adults can learn a little bit about how to deal with adversity by how he dealt with this and smiled as he took it on.
"Every time I went to see him with the intention of making him feel better, I always left having received more from him than I gave by talking to him. At the end, I told him on Sunday that he fought long and hard and if it's time to let go, then it's okay to let go."
The news of Brandon's passing hit hardest at his school, Greenbrook Elementary School. Staff members and leadership at Greenbrook had been preparing for the inevitable for quite some time, but the loss of a child so young still had a profound impact on those who came in touch with the heroic third-grader.
"It's a very sobering and serious situation. We've been dealing with Brandon's illness for 19 months, going from being hopeful to watching his decline the last two months," said Greenbrook Principal Patricia Holliday. "He had so much spirit and was such a fighter. We've been preparing for this last set of circumstances, but there were a lot of tears (Monday) morning. There were many false starts where things didn't look good and the situation would decline, but then he would rally and come back. Some of the kids are having a more difficult time dealing with this. We were all impacted by Brandon as a person because he was so bright and had such an energy and vitality about him."
Holliday said staff members spoke with each classroom about Brandon's death Monday morning, and district counselors were on scene to help students and staff deal with the grief and stress from Brandon's loss.
"Brandon's been our mission for so long and we were trying to do things for him to keep his energy going and remind him that we're always thinking of him, because he hasn't been able to attend school since November," she said. "It's been difficult but we're sustaining each other. We have an amazing group of counselors. We're trying to keep ourselves as normal as possible, which helps us to deal with it, and make sure everyone is calm. We have substitutes available for our teachers if they feel overwhelmed with sadness, to take a break for themselves and cry if they need to cry.
"As much as we felt prepared for this eventuality, it's been much harder to deal with than we expected."
Brandon's death came after a long road of ups and downs in his prognosis, throughout the course of heavy chemotherapy treatment.
In September 2010, Brandon suffered a seizure and a tumor was discovered, which required him to have brain surgery. A few months later he was diagnosed with brain cancer. Soon thereafter, Brandon began chemotherapy treatments at the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, five times a week for five months.
"I just cried and cried for a very long time," Brandon's mother Sharol said in an . "We don't get cancer in my family. I don't understand how he got it. It just doesn't happen. We hardly ever got sick."
Throughout difficult treatment and painful side effects, Brandon remained determined and upbeat as he fought hard against a relentless disease. After months and months of chemotherapy, Brandon's original tumor shrank by 92 percent of its original size.
But real life is not a fairy tale and Hollywood endings are saved for the big screen. In reality cancer is an evil disease that so rarely, if ever, truly loses. It only waits.
In November last year, a new inoperable tumor was discovered on the stem of Brandon's brain. The tumor largely impaired vision in his right eye and made movement on the right side of his body difficult. Still, during a visit with Patch in the fall of 2011, even as he was limited in his movement and his eye was swollen shut, Brandon maintained a huge smile on his face.
As he spoke of his upcoming birthday party on Dec. 2, Brandon laughed and said no when his mom asked if he wanted American Idol host Jennifer Lopez to attend. He laughed even harder and blushed when his family teased him that he really wanted actress Selena Gomez to attend.
For the past few months Brandon's condition slowly deteriorated, as he spent his final days at home. Yet he still had the strength to accomplish one last wish with his family.
"A few weeks ago he was able to go to Sea World, because typical of Brandon, he had some things on his list that he wanted to challenge himself to do," Boyle said. "I think (Sunday) at the end, he held on long enough to give the rest of us a chance to say goodbye. I think he held on more for us than for him. I believe he was that strong, and said this is important to other people so he held on. I really believe that's what was going on."
In the immediate aftermath of Brandon's diagnosis in 2010, South Brunswick residents were driven to get involved to help the Dominguez family.
Brandon's classmates and the staff at Greenbrook began raising funds through a program called . Students, parents and staff purchased small paper bears for $1, which were then decorated and taped to the walls of the school. It wasn't long before the other schools in South Brunswick joined in the fundraising efforts to help the family.
"Greenbrook School, Brandon’s home school, has been a continuous source of support," Sharol said last year. "There are always cards and special gifts, friends and visits, books to read, food for dinner and lots and lots of bears. These are constant signs for Brandon that he is remembered."
Thousands of dollars began to pour in from schools throughout the district. The web site staystrongbrandon.org was launched to help raise funds for the Dominguez family.
The three Confectionately Yours, Buffalo Wild Wings, Tastee Subs and Innophos of Cranbury all held fundraisers for Brandon. in addition to the Hugs for Brady Foundation, and the annual .
"I was never expecting this kind of support, coming from New York City," Sharol said in 2011. "It's not even support, it's love. The love people have shown for us. It's amazing what the South Brunswick community has done for us to not have to worry about the little things. Friends have become like family and I feel like we're all in this together because everybody is with us. Without their support, I don't know what we would've done."
Rallying the hardest for Brandon was the South Brunswick High School wrestling team.
Brandon's older brother David wrestled at 135 lbs. for SBHS in 2010. David's teammates showed their solidarity behind the Dominguez family by all . Brandon was also made an honorary captain of the squad.
David would go on to win the District 20 wrestling After winning the title, David ran over and gave his brother a big hug.
for Brandon's medical treatment by selling t-shirts carrying the message "Stay Strong Brandon," after being touched by his strength and courage.
"Me, his mom and him were watching a movie and she looked at me and shook her head to say this isn't looking good," said South Brunswick resident and in an interview from March. "His tumor is growing and radiation isn't working. She said to him 'but we're still staying strong right Brandon?'
"He said yes we are. I'm not really his brother, but this has affected all of us the same way. We all stick together."
Harpster and his friends at Rutgers University held a fundraiser called "A Night for Brandon," where students each made get well cards for him. Harpster and friends also recorded a song to the beat of "Don’t Worry Be Happy" by Bobby McFerrin about Brandon (click on video).
After seeing so many friends and strangers he would never meet give so willingly to help, during an interview last year to those who supported him.
"Thank you to everyone for being there for me and helping my hopes," he said.
Brandon's viewing will be held on Wednesday at St. Cecilia's Roman Catholic Church, located at 10 Kingston Lane in Monmouth Junction from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.
The funeral service will also be at St. Cecilia's on Thursday at 10 a.m. Interment will be at the Holy Cross Cemetery.
For those who desire, flowers may be sent to St. Cecilia's Church for the visitation and should be delivered before noon on Wednesday.
As those who knew Brandon struggle to come to grips with his tragic loss, the memories and lessons he left behind will continue to live on long after his death.
"I think an event like this brings us closer together as a community because we supported Brandon as a community," Boyle said. "This helps us focus on the more important things in life and places our priorities in the right place. He's in a better place now, that I'm sure of. He was a special person dealt a really awful circumstance and even at 9-years-old, he handled it with a dignity and grace the rest of us should be envious of.
"I ask everyone, in whatever way they can, to pray for the family because this kid was a true hero."
Memorial contributions may be made to:
Brandon A. Dominguez Memorial Fund c/o Alfonso Dominguez – 158 Old Beekman Road, Monmouth Junction, NJ 08852.
To help in the fight against pediatric cancer locally, visit the Hugs for Brady Foundation web site to donate or learn more about how you can help kids with cancer.