Five-time cancer survivor gives back with $1 million fundraising campaign
Photos courtesy of Casey O'Brien
The University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital was like a second home for Casey O'Brien.
The former University of Minnesota Golden Gopher football player estimates he spent more than 350 nights in the hospital. He also made hundreds of more trips there since being diagnosed as a teenager with osteosarcoma, a rare type of bone cancer.
Now in his early 20s and living cancer-free, O'Brien seeks to help future patients by raising $1 million to overhaul the hospital's Pediatric Specialty Care Journey Clinic.
“It's a special place because they really care about each patient and they want to see everyone get better,” O'Brien says of the Masonic Children's Hospital, part of the M Health Fairview campus, overlooking the west bank of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis.
Much of his time was spent on the ninth-floor infusion center where he received chemotherapy treatments. Though the welcoming building and nurturing staff softened the blow of a difficult situation, O'Brien says the clinic could use an update.
Along with renaming the space as the Team One Four Infusion Center—based on the number O'Brien wore on his college football uniform—the crowfunding campaign will go toward new amenities and enhancing the patient and family experience. There'll be fresh paint, more natural lighting, bigger televisions and access to streaming services for movies and shows. So far, the campaign has raised $35,000 through the crowdfunding website, and $100,000 through a private donation, since starting in early 2021.
“We want kids to have many different things to help keep them occupied, as well as things for little brothers or sisters sitting there with them,” says O'Brien, a new client associate with RBC Wealth Management-U.S. in Minneapolis.
O'Brien's own journey started while playing quarterback his freshman year of high school. Dropping back to pass, he says he'd feel a sharp pain in his knee, which doctors eventually discovered was being caused by a tumor about the size of a softball.
Multiple surgeries, bouts of chemo and months of recovery followed. In his sophomore year, a scan found additional tumors on his lungs. For a 14-year-old frustrated at being unable to play the game he loves, the news hit him hard.
“I just wanted to be a normal kid,” O'Brien recalls.
Determined to take back control of his life, he worked in his junior year to return to the football field as a holder—a position that allowed him to play with less risk of injury. He continued in the role on the varsity team his senior year.
Photos courtesy of Casey O'Brien
O'Brien credits football and being part of a team with helping to get him through those challenging years. So when it came time to explore college options, he says he was thrilled to be offered an opportunity to join the Gophers. He played in two games in 2019 during his sophomore season.
Though he announced his retirement from football in early 2021, O'Brien is excited to put his college degree to use and join a new kind of team at RBC. He hopes to inspire his colleagues to make a difference in the community—starting with the Team One Four Infusion Center fundraising campaign.
“I'm not just doing this fundraiser alone,” O'Brien says. “This is for everyone who cares about childhood cancer.”
A team effort to provide support
Although the infusion center's new name is based on O'Brien's old number, it also acknowledges that cancer treatment is a team effort shouldered by family, friends, and the community at large.
O'Brien knows that better than anyone. The story of his cancer fight was featured on ESPN and shared around the world. O'Brien says he's received messages of support from small towns in Minnesota to as far away as Germany and Australia.
“So many kids look up to Casey as an inspiration,” says Nick Engbloom, director of community partnerships at M Health Fairview.
Engbloom says donations big and small will help “make the best space possible” for the thousands of pediatric patients who come to the clinic every year to undergo treatments that can take upwards of six hours at a time.
“No one looks forward to coming to the hospital,” O'Brien says, “but we don't want kids to dread it or feel like their appointment lasts forever.”
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