It was quiet on the fifth floor when Ashtyn Brown visited Wednesday. The inpatient ward for cancer patients at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis, Brown was relieved to see, was not at capacity.
“I got a lot of peace from that,” said Brown, who spent a large chunk of her childhood on the fifth floor.
During a decades-long golf career, Rosie Jones has attended plenty of media days but none like the one Wednesday at Riley in snowy downtown Indianapolis. Proceeds from the Legends Championship at French Lick go to the Riley Children’s Foundation, and Jones was in town to help deliver a $50,000 check and create buzz for the Aug. 15-17 tournament. In addition to the $50,000, 80 percent of the net profit from the French Lick tournament will benefit Riley.
Brown, a two-time cancer survivor, was there to move hearts.
“It was a difficult day,” said Jones, who was inspired by Brown’s success story and deeply touched by the young patients whom she met taking part in the art therapy program. Jones made golf clubs and golf balls out of Play-Doh with a young girl hooked up to an IV who was scheduled for surgery Thursday.
“She even figured out how to put dimples on the ball,” Jones said.
Children who endure such incredible hardships come out on the other side with a perspective and, in Brown’s case, a deep wisdom that is nothing short of stunning.
In a ballroom in downtown Indianapolis just before her senior year of high school, Brown prepared for her first big speech, at a dinner for Fuzzy Zoeller’s Wolf Challenge. Before she rose to speak, Brown met a handful of PGA Tour players, including Boo Weekley, and remembers thinking to herself, “What’s it to them? Will they even remember me?”
Brown shared her story and, just as she was leaving, Weekley stopped her at the door to comment on her speech, saying “I’m never going to forget you.”
This 21-year-old has an unmistakable gift for storytelling.
“It really just opened my eyes,” said Brown, who since that time has made it a mission to share her success story in hopes of raising support for others like her.
In 2011, Brown served as the Riley ambassador for the PGA Tour’s Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic in Orlando, Fla., which qualified her for a spot in the tournament’s pro-am. She made sure to seek out Weekley on the putting green.
He remembered her, as promised.
On July 9, 1999, Brown, then 6, was first diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Within four hours of entering Riley Hospital, she received chemotherapy treatments. The odds were in her favor.
After 2 1/2 years of treatment, Brown was pronounced cancer-free. That victory, however, lasted only nine months.
She was diagnosed a second time on July 12, 2002, at age 9.
The disease returned with a vengeance, moving into her spinal fluid. Even worse, a fungal infection had set in on her liver, kidneys and spleen, making it impossible for her to receive bone marrow or stem-cell transplants.
“At 9 years old, 35 pounds and a less-than-10-percent chance of living, a miracle needed to be found,” Brown said.
Enter Dr. Jeffrey Goldman, a lawyer-turned-physician who spent days and nights in the hospital searching for a way to save his tiny patient.
The Brown family’s only hope was an experimental drug that had yet to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration nor used on any chid in the U.S.
The drug was administered to Brown for six months before the infection disappeared. Six more months of chemo and treatments followed. Mercifully, Brown has been cancer-free.
Throughout her incredible trial, Brown made many connections at Riley with others who were stricken with cancer. In all, she lost 10 friends and a doctor – the very one who saved her – to what she calls an “ugly beast” of a disease.
Among those lost was Justin Cross, a young man from the same hometown, Richmond, Ind., who played college golf at Ball State. Cross became like an older brother to Brown, and before he died at age 24 in 2005, he left Ashtyn a note along with his leather scorecard holder.
Brown decided that she too wanted to play college golf at Ball State, to honor Cross. She worked hard on her game, tallying a 78.1 scoring average as a high school senior. After two seasons at Ball State, Brown transferred to the University of Indianapolis, where she is a redshirt junior.
This summer at French Lick, Brown will serve as the event’s honorary starter and participate in the pro-am. Jones also invited her to play in the Judson Collegiate and Legends Pro-Am Challenge in June in Roswell, Ga.
Brown’s daily mantra – keep it in perspective – makes her different from most student-athletes. Her unique perspective carries an inordinate amount of experience with life and death.
There are always people who are worse off, Brown reminds us.
“I tell myself to buck up, because I’m here and I’m breathing and my friends aren’t,” Brown said. “It’s definitely a blessing and a burden.”
One we should all share.