A high school pitching star just drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies said he never would have made it there if not for an unlikely friendship.
Ben Brown, 17, was a junior at Ward Melville High School when he was rushed to the emergency room at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital with a ruptured appendix on April 17, 2016. Brandon Bloom, 8, was admitted on the same day with a persistent cough.
The boys ended up on the same floor. Ben, of East Setauket, had his appendix removed and remained in bed hooked to an IV. Brandon, of South Setauket, would be diagnosed with Stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
They were both too sick at the time to leave their rooms and never met, but their parents spent the week consoling each other.
“I was scared to death for my kid,” said Ben’s mother, Jo-Anne Brown. “But watching this family, worrying for their son. It was terrible. I never stopped praying for that little boy.”
Ben would leave the hospital after about a week, 30 pounds lighter and unsure if he would be able to continue playing baseball. Brandon would begin a course of chemotherapy, said his father, Brian Bloom, 35.
The two families wouldn’t meet again until eight months later at a baseball camp held at Ward Melville by Mets pitcher and school alumnus Steven Matz. Brandon is a devoted Mets fan who “lives for baseball,” his father said.
By then, Brandon had been undergoing chemotherapy for months and had lost his hair but not his excitement for the game, his father said. Ben was helping out at the clinic and was immediately drawn to the bald boy with the “million-dollar smile,” he said.
By the end of the day, Bloom said his son had all but forgotten about Matz and became attached to Ben. While talking about Brandon’s illness after the clinic, Bloom and Ben soon realized the boys had been in the hospital at the same time.
“When I found out I couldn’t even form words,” Ben said. “I was shaking. It was such a beautiful shock.”
The boys grew closer in the months that followed. They meet up a few times a week to “have a catch,” have attended each other’s birthday parties and text daily — mostly about video games but sometimes to share photos of their cats, Brandon said.
Brandon also became Ward Melville’s bat boy, and always showed up to games wearing the yellow jersey Ben’s mother made for him, with their last names “Brown and Bloom” stitched on its back.
“He’d never miss a game,” Ben said. “Even when I could tell he was tired and had gone through treatment the same day, he’d always be so happy to be there. He was so tough.”
The newfound friendship was a turning point for Ben, too.
After his appendectomy, Ben lost at least five of the scholarships he’d been offered earlier in the season because recruiters thought he’d lost too much velocity in his pitch, he said. He thought his “whole career was over.” But Brandon inspired him to keep going.
“Seeing this little boy fighting with so much heart, I thought I had no excuses,” Ben said.
When he recovered from the surgery, Ben worked out every day and put on about 15 pounds of muscle, he said. In his senior season, he pitched 45 2⁄3 innings, striking out 67 and allowing just six earned runs and 17 hits.
When Brandon was first diagnosed, at age 6, his mother, Stefanie Bloom, said she worried about how he’d handle the isolation that comes with this type of aggressive treatment and thought he needed a companion. She got him a gray cat, which Brandon named Cuddles and promptly grew bored with. Then he met Ben.
“It’s a hard, lonely process, ’cause you’re not in school, you’re not around your friends and you’re surrounded by medical people,” said Stefanie Bloom, 33. “But Ben has become that person that Brandon can turn to. He’s always saying to me, ‘I want to see Ben.’”
So far Brandon has responded well to the chemotherapy and will continue his treatment until August 2018 when he’ll be reassessed, according to his doctor, Robert Parker, division chief of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital.
Earlier this month, Ben was drafted by the Phillies in the 33rd round. He’s now in Clearwater, Florida, to play rookie ball.
Brandon was ecstatic for Ben, though only a little disappointed his friend wouldn’t be playing for the Mets, Brian Bloom said.
“People will ask me how did you recover from the appendectomy so well?” Ben said. “I tell them about Brandon. I think it’s the Bloom power.”