Butler Basketball Player’s Dad Has Brain Tumor, Tries Dog Therapy

The weekend was supposed to be one of those guys' escapades in Las Vegas. Filled with sports talk, lots of good food and maybe, just maybe, a little bragging.

Joe Brunk had plenty to boast about. His son, Joey Brunk, was set to launch his college basketball career with Butler University the following weekend at Hinkle Fieldhouse.

But as he sat at breakfast in the hotel, he noticed a little headache. It didn't alarm him at first. He'd been having some mild headaches that would come on quickly and dissipate just as fast. But as Brunk sat there eating his breakfast, this headache didn't go away. It escalated.

"All of a sudden, I'm like 'Man I'm really starting to feel bad,'" Brunk said last week. "So I go up to my hotel room and fall into bed. And I'm essentially paralyzed."

Paralyzed on his left side. Brunk should have died alone in that Las Vegas hotel room in October. His brain was bleeding from a tumor, called glioblastoma. But because of a room mix up, Brunk happened to be sharing his room with a buddy that night. And that morning at breakfast, he had just given that friend a room key.

So, when Brunk disappeared, the friend came up to check on him. He found him paralyzed in the bed, screaming in pain.

"God put together a string of miracles for me, just boom boom boom to be alive and have a chance," Brunk said. "So, now I'm just going to make the most of the chance."


A chance. Brunk puts it that way because the prognosis isn't good with glioblastoma. It's an aggressive, cancerous type of brain tumor. Once discovered, doctors often look at quality of life over quantity of life.

"I treat patients with the worst kinds of brain tumors," said Brunk's neurosurgeon, Mahua Dey, M.D., with IU Health Methodist Hospital. "If we can make the patient's quality of life better, that's what we really want."

And that is why Brunk, the dad of a Butler Bulldog, was spending time last week with a different kind of dog -- a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Cleopatra -- at the IU Health Neuroscience Center. Brunk is part of a new research study that examines whether patients being treated with brain tumors have improved quality of life after spending time with a dog.

"We all know that pets make our lives better, but there is no science that actually proves it," said Dr. Dey, who is leading the study. "Everybody says that just looking at a dog makes you happy, but there is no objective way of saying that it does."

During the session, Brunk sat in a dark room with Cleopatra. Each of them were on a chair next to the other, in a spotlight. It was a chance for Brunk to think, reflect and meditate as he pet Cleopatra.

The study is called "Bridging the Gap" and has a goal of bringing together art, science and medicine to generate both scientific data and artistic documentation of patients being treated for brain tumors.

Stefan Petranek, an image-based artist and associate professor of photography and intermedia at the IUPUI Herron School of Art and Design, is the artistic side. He shot photos and video of Brunk before and after the dog therapy session.

"We're trying to see if we can use facial expressions to identify people's quality of life," he said. "And if pet therapy makes a difference."

The study is multilayered. It also will tell through visual documentation what the patients who've been treated for brain tumors go through. The study is seeking as many as 50 patients.

"How can we tell their story, the story of these people who have been going through this incredibly, emotionally difficult disease," said Petranek. "When you have to deal with something so emotionally difficult and scary, it changes the way you think about everything else."

Brunk can attest to that. His brain tumor has turned his world upside down. Time spent with Cleopatra helped that, even if just a little.

"It was calming," he said of the pet therapy session.

Brunk, who had his tumor removed in October, is going through treatments of chemotherapy and radiation. He had spent this morning getting radiation.

"It's only 1 o'clock, but it's been a long day," he said. "I'm pretty tired."

Very tired. Yet, he wanted to talk about his sons, Joey and 15-year-old Johnny. He wanted to talk about the hundreds of trips to the zoo he, his wife Helen, and the boys had made over the years. He wanted to talk about basketball memories. He wanted to talk about how proud he was of all of them.

Even if it did make him cry.


Both boys are so close to their dad, so tight, and that's what made the plane ride so awful. Helen and the two boys heading out to Las Vegas on a plane to see the man they loved in a hospital, still not sure whether he was going to live or die.

Helen had gotten the call from her husband's friends. He really wasn't feeling well, they told her. Then, she heard Joe Brunk yelling.

"He was in the background saying his head was going to explode," Helen Brunk said. "So, I knew it was bad. I didn't know it was that bad."

But bad is all relative now. Joe Brunk said he's still getting to live a pretty "normal" life.

"Everything I've wanted to do, I've done," he said.

Butler basketball games, friends, family -- and fighting. Fighting this terrible disease.

"My dad has always been a competitor and faces his toughest battle yet: cancer," Joey Brunk tweeted after finding out his dad's diagnosis. "I know if anyone can overcome it, it's him." 

Then, Joey wrote a love letter, of sorts, to his dad -- remembering all their great times together.

"I'll always treasure our early morning workouts before school. And that James Taylor CD we listened to when traveling back and forth from Little League. And our middle school ritual of getting breakfast every Friday morning," he wrote. "I'm so grateful to have you still here with us. I wish it didn't take something like this to bring back all of our memories, but it makes me appreciate having you all the more."

 -- By Dana Benbow, Senior Journalist at IU Health.
Reach Benbow via email dbenbow@iuhealth.org or on Twitter @danabenbow.

Enroll In Pet Therapy Study

The IU Health Neuroscience Center is looking for patients who have been treated for brain tumors to participate in the dog therapy project. Participants must be willing to spend time with a therapy dog, fill out two brief questionnaires – one before the experience and one immediately afterward -- and agree to have their photo and or video taken for the project. For more information or to enroll, contact 317-396-1286.

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