Family carries birthday presents to Omaha patients

By By CINDY LANGE-KUBICK

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — The little boy's back hurt, and it woke him up, crying.

Josh Brestel's parents would go to him and soothe him back to sleep.

And soon there was blood in his urine and a trip to the emergency room, and another trip and a CAT scan and kidney cancer and weeks and months in and out of the hospital for a 3-year-old who loved monkeys and giraffes and elephants, most of all.

Josh died Dec. 1, 2004, 12 days before his fifth birthday.

The next year, his family — his mom, Diane, his dad, Steve, his big brother, Tyler, and the big sister he called Sissy — had a party for him.

They called it "The 1st Annual Josh Brestel Birthday Safari and Toy Drive."

They held it on a Saturday at their church, and there were cookies and cake and balloons and lots of laughing and a few tears.

People brought presents.

And all of those games and stuffed animals and basketballs and dolls filled two minivans with the seats taken out.

A few days later, on Dec. 13, Josh's mom and dad and sister drove to Omaha and delivered the presents to Children's Hospital, where Josh had been a patient.

They did the same thing the next Dec. 13, and the next.

And they will do it again Thursday, the day Josh would have turned 13.

After that first year, the Brestels started delivering half the presents to Saint Elizabeth Regional Medical Center. Josh had outpatient chemotherapy at the cancer clinic there on Thursdays.

That's where he first met Haley Mathis, a girl with the same kind of cancer he had, called a Wilm's tumor, a cancer that starts in the kidney and is often, but not always, curable.

Haley's family and Josh's family became friends.

Haley liked little kids, and she liked Jess — "Sissy" — who was her age, 11.

The spring before Josh died, a woman from Make-a-Wish came to see him about going on a special trip.

Where would he like to go?

"I want to see a giraffe, a kangaroo, an alligator and King Louie," Josh told her.

They couldn't send him on a safari to Africa, so they settled on second best: a trip to Animal Kingdom at Disney World.

Then Josh got sicker, and the trip never happened.

After he died, the Make-a-Wish woman came to see Haley. Where would she like to go on her wish trip?

She wanted to go to Disney World and Animal Kingdom, like Josh had. But the sixth-grader had another request: Could Jess come, too?

Since Josh couldn't make his trip, maybe his sister could.

At first, the Make-a-Wish people said no. Only family. Then they had a special meeting and changed the rules for Haley.

Two months after losing Josh, the Brestels flew to Florida with Haley and her family.

They saw giraffes and monkeys and lions and elephants.

Haley was 12 when she died, June 21, 2005.

On Saturday, at the Eighth Annual Josh Brestel Birthday Safari and Toy Drive, toys and stuffed animals fill two long rows of tables at American Lutheran Church.

On Thursday they'll load up and deliver again. Since the first party, Diane figures they've given 3,800 toys and $7,000 in gift cards — all in Josh's memory.

"If there's anything we can do to help, even a little bit, we want to," Steve says. "We know what it's like."

At the end of this year's party, like always, guests let balloons go into the sky.

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Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, http://www.journalstar.com

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