Comment by the judge: Touching piece of the incredible support that Oregon assistant Gary Campbell and his wife gave to their chronically ill son. Excellent description of the boy’s room and how it was the center of the house. Gently weaves in how football was the only escape for Campbell.
By Andrew Greif
EUGENE — Among the unshakeable habits that instantly transport Gary Campbell to the memory of his only son, there is one that pulls him from his bed, leads him downstairs and into the room he dreaded entering for months.
Campbell estimates he hasn’t slept soundly through a night since 1984, the year Bryan was born with a neuromuscular disease that required a ventilator to breathe air into his lungs and demanded 24-hour vigilance from Gary and wife, Alola. It was his second year as Oregon’s running backs coach, a title he still holds as dean of the Ducks’ staff.
Four months have passed since Bryan died at 29 on Aug. 15 from complications from Werdnig-Hoffman syndrome and only now is Alola able to block out most of the noises of the night.
Gary still cannot.
“I don’t sleep,” he says. “I guarantee I wake up three, four times at least.”
He is torn between half-rest, half high alert, instinctually awakening to ensure his son is safe only to realize he is listening for cues that are no longer there.
The whoosh-whir of Bryan’s ventilator; and its beep-beep-beep that signaled a problem; the buzz from the intercom connecting Bryan’s customized first-floor room to Gary and Alola’s upstairs; a mother’s frantic feet when the round-the-clock nursing staff needed help.
But in recent weeks – as Bryan’s favorite time of year, bowl season, crept closer – Gary has sought closure by remembering Bryan’s best times and unpacking the lessons of his son’s life as part of his process to accept the pain he says he never wishes to forget.
Often, it manifests itself through stops in the room he struggled to enter save for feeding Bryan’s fish. It’s now known as “Bryan’s Game Room” — a pool table replacing a hospital bed, the squeals of three grandchildren who call Gary “Papa” replacing the whoosh-whir. He and Alola are determined to make it a place of hope.
“Sometimes I’ll just get out of bed and go down and browse around, shoot a couple balls and just spend some time in there,” he says. “We didn’t really talk about it much, but I know for me it took a while for it not to have that kind of empty feeling whenever I walked in …
“Now, it’s not a dreaded spot and that’s why we made it a game room. We wanted it to be a happy place to go. I feel good about going in there now.”
As intended when Gary and Alola drew up the blueprints, Bryan’s room is the first place a visitor’s eye travels when entering the Campbells’ north Eugene home, not far from the Willamette River’s east bank.
From the front door, it took Gary and Alola and their daughters, Phillis, Traci and Janee, just four steps to reach the room of the family’s third child, where Bryan often eagerly awaited their return from work or school.
It was a space the family literally constructed their life around, custom-built to meet Bryan’s many needs. Two televisions hung at angles he could watch while reclined. Behind a pair of hidden doors, a purple lift waited to deliver Bryan into an elevated tub. In one corner, a shelf still holds titles ranging from children’s books to coaching philosophy.
In another, a plush Beaver doll wearing a tiny, orange Oregon State T-shirt, clings to a shelf of DVDs, a gift from a nurse who helped deliver Bryan on June 18, 1984, at Eugene’s Sacred Heart Hospital, an inauspicious end to a seemingly perfect pregnancy. Ten days after his birth, he was flown to UCLA Medical Center for his diagnosis. After the life-changing events of August, the beaver is a time capsule to the first time their world was altered forever.
Posters show great Oregon running backs and quarterbacks through the years. A large photo of a teenage Bryan and Gary hangs opposite an illustrated portrait of the son, his black-framed glasses comically large. There’s the intercom, too, which Alola taught Bryan’s nurses to buzz once or twice in the night for normal procedures and repeatedly for emergencies.
She taught them such exacting care that doctors marveled at how perfect Bryan’s skin was for being bed-ridden his entire life.
“I don’t think (Bryan) could have had a better mom than my wife,” Gary says. “He lived in a spa.”
But there were many scares.
Bryan’s condition became so grave so often that Gary estimates doctors told the family, “Well, this is it…” 15 to 20 times. And then the boy given a year to live at birth would fight back, and live on.
But in the final months, Gary recalls seeing in Bryan’s expressive eyes a growing sense of fatigue. Just as before, family routines revolved around his room, but two weeks before his death, that setting had changed to Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend. He remained there, a 10-minute drive east from his family home, until the end. Gary settled into an uneasy rhythm of driving the 15 minutes from his office to Bryan’s bedside immediately after UO’s fall-camp practices, then returning to work when he felt assured Bryan’s condition was stable.
When Bryan’s condition worsened, Oregon coach Mark Helfrich — who endured his own period of mourning two years earlier after his father died unexpectedly after traveling to Arizona for an Oregon game — told Gary to step away for as much time as he needed, an offer he eventually accepted.
Believing Bryan would make it through the night, the Campbells returned home late in mid-August, only to be awoken by a telephone after 5 a.m. the next morning, Aug. 15. Bryan’s heart had stopped once, a nurse reported, and his blood pressure had dropped precipitously. Gary, Alola and their loved ones needed to race the five miles down Beltline Highway immediately.
As the family hurried, the nurse told Bryan repeatedly that his family was coming and Gary believes hearing that kept Bryan alive long enough for one more fight. They surrounded him, with Alola stroking his head and holding his hand.
Before noon, Bryan’s blood pressure plummeted again.
“We saw it spiral down from 100 to 90, to 80, to 60 and you could just see it going,” Gary says. “Even though he was on life support, his heart just failed … I’ll never forget when the nurse said, ‘I’m sorry, he’s gone.’
“My wife said, ‘But the machine’s still going, shouldn’t it go off?’”
It was so peaceful that Alola, expecting the monitors to show a flat-line to confirm her greatest fear — the one that kept her “tense 24 hours a day, seven days a week” — didn’t realize what had happened.
“I said, ‘No, he’s gone,’” Gary remembers. “… She wanted a few more minutes, just a little bit more time.”
Publicly, they projected the picture of strength.
Four days after Bryan’s passing, Gary returned to his fourth-floor office in the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex, where framed photos of Bryan and his daughters sit on a wooden desk as autographed pictures of his former players in the NFL line the north wall. He arrives not long after 7 a.m., and typically leaves 15 hours later. Alola found release in friends from church, working out or corralling energetic grandchildren who range from ages 7 to 1.
Privately, they are filling the void slowly, hearing from those who lost loved ones but grappling to understand how they will move forward. They lean on their faith. Alola often speaks to Bryan through prayer when in his room.
I try to be at peace with it and I think I am,” Alola says. “You have to be. You have to find some peace at some point. I think not completely, but I think peace is coming, and it’s close. Each day gets better.”
It is wrenching to break decades-old routines. And Bryan, who couldn’t speak, was paralyzed below his neck and had limited facial movement, somehow left reminders everywhere for them.
At their church, Emerald Community Fellowship, their default is no longer to sit in the special area roped off in the back for Bryan’s wheelchair, a place where his ventilator was less intrusive. When Gary walks past the spot, he is swarmed by memories.
A waterfall in their backyard stirs thoughts of how Bryan would sit and watch as geese bathed in its mist before waddling, curious, up to his chair and ankles. In July, he won’t be there to see the cul-de-sac’s annual Fourth of July fireworks show that Gary created in his honor. Just last week, Alola froze at the mall when she heard a beep-beep-beep identical to the alarms on Bryan’s ventilator.
“I don’t think this is something you’ll ever get over,” Alola says with a shrug and a smile, sitting on the stairs. She echoed Gary, who says he “doesn’t want it to get easier, you know? We don’t want to forget because we want to remember.”
Reminders from well-wishers on the street once felt like booby-traps, startling Gary with a flashback to his son while he pondered something else. Other times, it hits Gary that Bryan is gone, and the realization takes the air out of him like a sucker punch in the gut.
“I know it’s happened and often I just say, ‘Wow, Bryan’s gone,’ ” Gary says. “I’ll walk into his room and look at his picture and it’s like he’s really … we’re not going to see him again.”
Similarly, the thousands of cards they read in small chunks before bed for months kept the wound open. Sometime in mid-November, their feelings turned as they came to grips with the death and sensed how many others were mourning Bryan’s passing, too.
The sheer scope of the condolences — judges, lawyers, nurses, strangers, former players and more wrote — stunned them.
“My goodness he touched a lot of people,” Alola says. “How did he do this, and he could never speak?”
As the tide of their grief recedes, new revelations — lessons from Bryan — emerge from beneath the surface.
Since spending a sentimental Thanksgiving together, the family says sadness is being overtaken by a sense of perspective that reminds them how lucky they are to have their memories and one another.
“It’s strengthened us as a family and strengthened our belief that you can overcome a lot if you fight,” Gary says. “That’s something he’s taught us all. Nobody can tell you what you can’t do and what’s going to happen.”
The greatest reminder of that perspective could come on Christmas Day, when the Campbells fly to San Antonio for Oregon’s appearance in the Dec. 30 Alamo Bowl. It is a trip to Gary’s home state and one Bryan would have loved, a rare reprieve in a life with limited travel outside of his room and occasional trips to the coast.
It will be a bittersweet journey for all involved. Oregon did not seek the Alamo Bowl after four straight seasons among the BCS elite. Gary and Alola, meanwhile, no longer need to incur the logistical headaches the trips represented, such as shipping Bryan’s ventilators, paying the expenses for up to four nurses and notifying hotels and airlines of their son’s needs. Yet seeing the light in Bryan’s eyes at Disneyland during Oregon’s Rose Bowl years — his favorite trip — made the planning worth it.
Bowls were always opportunities to blend Gary’s loved ones with his football family, but that bond was already sealed in August. In their meeting room, the running backs gathered around a speaker phone to check on their coach as he waited in the hospital. In turn, he watched practice video on his iPad and shot back critiques, laughing about being able to coach from afar. Four days after Bryan’s passing, Gary returned to practice.
“I feel like my job was kind of a getaway from it all,” Campbell remembers of August, when he would steal a few hours each day to focus on football, breaks from the pain he understands his wife and daughters could not always find.
In the five weeks between the bowl and national signing day, recruiting’s hectic schedule will create even more separation between his work life, where deep pockets provide the Ducks with anything they need, and his incomplete home life, where nothing can replace the family’s loss. But upon his return, he’ll arrive at the same front door he used to bull through after trips in order to see Bryan.
“It didn’t matter what time I got home that’s the first place I’d go, into his room,” Gary says. “I miss that. Many nights he wouldn’t go to sleep until I would get to him. I’d come in and the nurse would say, ‘He was waiting on you.’”
Now it is the father, unable to sleep and unwilling to forget, who stays up for the son.
ANDREW GREIF, The Oregonian
Background: Greif is a first-time award winner in the FWAA Best Writing Contest after joining The Oregonian in 2013 as the beat reporter covering the Oregon Ducks. He is a 2009 graduate of Oregon, where he talked his way onto the track team as a walk-on his first two years before talking his way into reporting for the campus daily his last two. Greif worked as an editor at The Corvallis Gazette-Times and Eugene Register-Guard for four years after graduation before The Oregonian in Portland brought him back to beat reporting. His work covering UO football and basketball in 2013-14 appeared on ESPN’s “Outside The Lines” and was recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists and Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association. His previous work at The Register-Guard was honored by Associated Press Sports Editors. He and his wife, Jessica, live in Eugene.