Padecky: Brock Albee couldn’t walk, now he runs cross country at Dominican University

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PETALUMA — To be a kid, oftentimes, is to be the lead actor in your own drama. Words, glances, clothes, hair styles, body movements, high grades, poor grades, any of them could be launch points to whispers, finger pointing or the shaking of a head. Snickering is a weapon with pointed edges, and without knowing his story it would be easy to snicker at Brock Albee for what he is about to say.

“I didn’t think I was going to live to tell this tale,” said Albee, 18, a graduate of Petaluma High School.

That sentence is indeed dramatic. Could be construed as florid. Over the top. Truth to tell, Albee may be understating his life, his situation, the road he has traveled. Fact is, Albee has climbed a mountaintop higher than most of us can imagine, to where he is standing today: He has signed a letter of intent to run cross country for Dominican University in San Rafael, a $5,000 scholarship from the Dipsea Foundation helping to finance the beginning of his college education.

The Penguins open their season Sept. 3 in the University of San Francisco Invitational.

Albee’s story could begin with Bell’s palsy or being bound to a wheelchair or relearning how to speak or the seizure or being held out of school for two months or being teased in Little League, but we might as well start with the first of his four brain surgeries. Brock was 3. Caroline, his mother, received a call from a day-care provider on Nov. 1, 2000. Her young son was unconscious.

Two hours after that, Brock underwent emergency brain surgery at Children’s Hospital in Oakland. In the space of just two hours, Brock went from your normal fun-loving, active kid to surgeons taking three hours to save his life.

Brock was suffering from hydrocephalus, a build-up of fluid on the brain. It is commonly referred to as “water on the brain” but actually it is cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), a clear, colorless liquid that surrounds the brain and spine. Left untreated, the condition is fatal. The Albee family believes the injury occurred from a fall resulting in the brain trauma.

“I thought I was going to lose it,” Caroline said. “I didn’t know if he was going to make it. I was waiting to see what was lost.”

For an hour after surgery, Brock remained unresponsive. Was there brain damage? Motor functions impacted? A thousand worst-case scenarios went through her head. Then came his first word: “Yummy,” as he felt the popsicle stick on his lips.

A shunt was implanted near the top of Albee’s head. It was the beginning of a 3-foot tube that would lead to his abdomen, draining away the excess CSF to where it could be absorbed into the bloodstream. He was in a wheelchair for a week, in intensive care for a month. His brain wasn’t damaged, but it was affected.

“I had to learn how to hold a spoon,” he said.

And learn how to speak and how to walk and how to eat. Albee had to learn how to be a human being again. How long a shunt remains functional before replacement varies. Some people undergo 30 shunt replacements. The first shunt was replaced by another when Albee was in kindergarten.

The second shunt surgery went smoothly, relatively speaking. The third? Not so much. Brock was in fifth grade at Grant Elementary. He was having trouble sipping a straw. Caroline thought a check-up trip to Children’s would be appropriate. The condition worsened in the car.

The diagnosis was almost immediate.

He needs his shunt replaced. Because of the trauma Brock now had Bell’s palsy, a facial paralysis, usually to one half of the face. Though not caused by a stroke, the person looks like a stroke victim.

Brock was kept home for two months, his family suspecting he would be mocked and ridiculed by other 10-year-olds. They wanted to save him from that embarrassment. He was in Home Hospital.

A Grant teacher came by three times a week with homework. It was a full six months before the last visible signs of Bell’s palsy were gone. The family wanted to avoid ridicule.

Oh, that their desires could have been that easily met.

“I was teased,” Brock said. Most of it occurred when he played for a Petaluma National Little League team.

“I was different,” he said.

How different? This is how cruel kids can be: To protect his head, Brock had to wear a helmet in the field. He was the only player to wear a helmet. That was enough for him to stand out in that age group.

“My mom intervened a couple times,” said Brock, a polite way to say she intervened verbally with much conviction. A quiet kid by nature, Brock wasn’t exactly encouraged to be an extrovert.

What happened in the seventh grade didn’t help.

Come, Caroline, the call went out, and pick up Brock from school. He’s vomiting, he’s light-headed and he has a headache. Brock was in art class at Petaluma Junior High. Caroline and Brock were in the car headed to Children’s again when mom looked in the rear view mirror and saw her son slumped in his seat. He had a seizure. Another brain surgery. Shunt No. 4. Another moment from hell.

And then, almost imperceptibly for those not paying close attention, the clouds started to part in his life. Now, it’s a sweet argument: Did running find Brock or did Brock find running?

He loved baseball but it was complicated. The helmet thing. The dangerous scenario: a fastball on his helmet. The loss of natural aggression that followed those factors.

But running! A teammate and yet alone. A part of something and yet apart. It was the perfect combination for an athlete with a 3-foot tube going into his stomach. He’s done a very competitive 11:55 2-mile. He qualified for the North Coast Section meet.

“It was exhilarating,” said Brock, 5-foot-8, 130 pounds, of running. “It’s like you are in your own zone.”

He paused, acknowledging he was trying to find the right words.

“It’s just being you,” he said.

That’s all Albee ever wanted to be. Just himself. No better or worse that anyone else. Just himself. His competitive jones was rewarded. His health improved. Sure, those with shunts undergo an uncertain future.

Brock is now in his sixth year with this shunt.

It may last forever. It may last until next week.

Don’t wait for forever, he has learned. Live today. And he attacked today. He earned a 3.6 grade point average. He was asked and eagerly accepted leadership roles in a variety of community endeavors, including Rotary Club.

When the board members of the Dipsea Foundation were reviewing possible recipients of their scholarship, they were told of Brock’s story. They knew he had run the tortuous Dipsea, which is no bunny trail. They found his attitude spot-on:

“Treat everyone with respect because you don’t know what they are going through. No one’s perfect … and you could just slip away by dying.”

So hydrocephalus did not make him bitter, even though it and the shunts will be with him for the rest of his life. Albee didn’t sit back and lick his wounded ego. Quiet but strong, he took another step forward, sometimes with running shoes on.

“I had to develop a backbone,” he said.

Truth to tell, Brock Albee already had one. He just gave himself the patience and the good grace to find it. He really was the lead actor in his own drama but, in this case, nothing was exaggerated. In fact, Albee shrugged. Life goes on, you know, and he’s living proof of that.

To contact Bob Padecky email him at

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