BYLINE: Robin Frank

Newswise — Everyone’s life changed in 2020 when the pandemic upended what we knew as normal. In November of that year, Brandt Morgan found himself facing another challenge few could imagine. At age 15, the Jericho High School quarterback was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s T-cell lymphoma, a rare type of cancer.

During his many months of cancer treatment at a Long Island hospital, Brandt had two goals: to get well and to play football again. If he was a champion on the football field prior to his diagnosis, he would later prove that his courage and determination knew no bounds.

As soon as he could, he resumed training while receiving chemotherapy treatment, setting up a makeshift gym in his hospital room. Side effects of the grueling treatment weren’t Brandt’s only challenge. At one point, he had to overcome neuropathy in his legs that made walking difficult. He dealt with listeria and appendicitis that required another four-week hospitalization.

Brandt faced every challenge head on, and in September 2022, he was in remission and returned to the football field as QB-1 quarterback to play again. Many who know him call him a hero, including his mom Abby, who was with him every step of the way. “He’s a warrior, he’s my rock star,” she said. “I’m the proudest mom in the world.”

For his outstanding character and determination, Brandt received the USA Football “Heart of a Giant” award presented by Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) and the New York Giants. The award recognizes high school football players in the tri-state area who demonstrate an unparalleled work ethic, extraordinary dedication and a passion for the game.

In late 2022, Brandt, who will turn 18 in April, faced another challenge that brought him to HSS. The cancer treatment, which included steroids, had contributed to the development of a condition called osteonecrosis in his right knee. Resulting damage to the cartilage and bone made it difficult for him to engage in weight-bearing activities such as running and climbing stairs. His best bet to repair the damage was a cartilage transplant.

Scott Rodeo, MD, vice chair of Orthopaedic Research, co-director of the Orthopaedic Soft Tissue Research Program at HSS, and Head Team Physician for the New York Giants performed a surgery known as OATS - osteochondral autograft transfer surgery. “The procedure consisted of taking a piece of cartilage and bone from a non-weightbearing portion of his right knee and transplanting it to the area of the lesion,” Dr. Rodeo explained. “Because of the size of the area to be treated, I used a similar graft from his left knee as well. We also used some bone graft from the iliac crest near the hip.” 

Abby Morgan said she was grateful that the procedure could be scheduled quickly. “Dr. Rodeo made magic happen, and Brandt had the surgery on December 29. I wanted to expedite it because Brandt had some big milestones ahead and the recovery would take time,” she explained. “On March 23, he will receive his last maintenance cancer treatment and ring a bell at the hospital to mark the occasion, and he didn’t want to be on crutches. Later that evening, he will receive the “Honored Hero” award from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Spring break is in April, and he wants to enjoy it, something he hasn’t been able to do in the past two and a half years.”

HSS staff who got to know Brandt, even briefly, were impressed and inspired by his positive attitude and perseverance. Dr. Rodeo said he was struck by Brandt’s unwavering commitment to achieve his goal to play football again.

Stephen Melancon, PA-C, a certified physician assistant who works with Dr. Rodeo, said he was impressed by the way Brandt confronted a challenge that many adults would have trouble grappling with emotionally and physically. Now Brandt has a social media presence to help other young people diagnosed with cancer.

“For someone his age, with all that he’s gone through, not only to still be able to participate in sports, which is great, but to put himself out there and make himself a resource for other people – it proves he’s an exceptional young individual with incredible drive and outstanding character,” Melancon said.

“Brandt is truly the definition of exceptional. I don’t know anyone quite like him,” said Robbie Tran, senior director of Global Sports Marketing at HSS. “When faced with adversity, he set his mind on a goal and despite multiple setbacks fought until he accomplished what he set out to. He is an inspiration to many,” added Tran, who met Brandt when he received the Heart of a Giant award.

“He really has the heart of a giant,” said Samuel Taylor, MD, a sports medicine surgeon at HSS and Associate Team Physician for the New York Giants, who presented the award to Brandt. “He refused to let cancer stop him. In the process he inspired his friends, family, teammates, and his community.”

Brandt, who went home from HSS on New Years Eve, continues to make progress following his knee surgery. He is still in physical therapy, which is expected to last 4 to 6 months, and the prognosis is good. At this time, no additional surgery is planned, and he should be able to return to most activities, Dr. Rodeo said.  

Although football may no longer be in his future, Brandt still has dreams and goals. He’s looking forward to college and a possible career in sports management. In the meantime, he is dedicated to helping other young people with cancer who contact him on social media or via a website he has created called “Comeback Kids.”

The site was born out of the kindness and generosity of a teenager who has been through a lot, as he seeks to encourage others, candidly describing his long journey from the moment he was diagnosed with cancer. He provides heartfelt advice on ways to cope and maintain a positive attitude. He communicates sincere empathy to comfort young people facing similar challenges.   

“When I was undergoing treatment, it was helpful to talk to someone who had been in that situation and who would be honest with me,” Brandt explained. “Being able to help others makes me feel like a better person. They ask me the same questions that I specifically remember asking.”

“Your life can change in a heartbeat, like mine did,” he added. “I think this happened to me for a reason – that I was meant to help other people.”

About HSS

HSS is the world’s leading academic medical center focused on musculoskeletal health. At its core is Hospital for Special Surgery, nationally ranked No. 1 in orthopedics (for the 13th consecutive year), No. 3 in rheumatology by U.S. News & World Report (2022-2023), and the best pediatric orthopedic hospital in NY, NJ and CT by U.S. News & World Report “Best Children’s Hospitals” list (2022-2023). In a survey of medical professionals in more than 20 countries by Newsweek, HSS is ranked world #1 in orthopedics for a third consecutive year (2023). Founded in 1863, the Hospital has the lowest complication and readmission rates in the nation for orthopedics, and among the lowest infection rates. HSS was the first in New York State to receive Magnet Recognition for Excellence in Nursing Service from the American Nurses Credentialing Center five consecutive times. An affiliate of Weill Cornell Medical College, HSS has a main campus in New York City and facilities in New Jersey, Connecticut and in the Long Island and Westchester County regions of New York State, as well as in Florida. In addition to patient care, HSS leads the field in research, innovation and education. The HSS Research Institute comprises 20 laboratories and 300 staff members focused on leading the advancement of musculoskeletal health through prevention of degeneration, tissue repair and tissue regeneration. The HSS Innovation Institute works to realize the potential of new drugs, therapeutics and devices. The HSS Education Institute is a trusted leader in advancing musculoskeletal knowledge and research for physicians, nurses, allied health professionals, academic trainees, and consumers in more than 145 countries. The institution is collaborating with medical centers and other organizations to advance the quality and value of musculoskeletal care and to make world-class HSS care more widely accessible nationally and internationally.

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