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Brittany’s Hope; Young woman’s heartbreaking death from rare cancer inspires foundation to help other cancer patients with medical bills

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Brittany Nicole Martin with her family. This photo was taken during the summer of 2016 around the time she first started having symptoms. From left, husband Lane; son Pearce Thomas, 7; daughter Audrey Claire, 10; and daughter Ellis Quinn, 11. (Submitted Photo)

For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.

— Timothy 4:10

In our darkest hours, even when death seems inevitable, we must never give up hope in God’s grace.

Brittany Nicole Martin, daughter of Maj. Gen. Jerry Grizzle, president and superintendent of New Mexico Military Institute, eventually succumbed to a painful battle with a rare cancer on May 2. But through her death there is now hope that research from her case can lead to improved treatments for patients with similar diagnoses.

Also, through a foundation created in her name, Brittany’s Hope, there is now a pool of money to assist chemo patients who cannot afford their copays or deductibles.

At 36, Brittany was a beautiful and bright woman who was universally loved by the Carlsbad community. She was a speech pathologist in the Carlsbad school system and active with her church, First United Methodist of Carlsbad.

She was married to Lane Martin, who practices law in Carlsbad with his father. Brittany could not have children of her own, so the Martins adopted a son and two daughters, Pearce Thomas, Audrey Claire and Ellis Quinn. They were 6, 9 and 10 at the time of Brittany’s death.

Brittany was physically fit, which both her father and the medical professionals say helped extend her life, even if only by weeks or months.

Despite her youthfulness, optimism and physical well-being, there was one thing that was insurmountable in her battle to stay alive.

Brittany, who was adopted by Grizzle and his wife Shawn, was born with only one kidney. The harsh chemo treatments ultimately shut down that single organ as it desperately worked to filter out the powerful medicines.

Though she had received most of her treatment at Covenant Health System in Lubbock, Texas, Brittany died at home in Carlsbad at 2:30 a.m.

Diagnosis and treatments

In the summer of 2016, Grizzle said his daughter developed a cough.

“She had the first CT scan done in Artesia,” he said. “The disc was sent to a trusted family friend who was a doctor in California. He called immediately and said it was serious and within a week she was in Houston at MD Anderson (Cancer Center).”

Grizzle said the CT scan had discovered patches on her lungs.

After Brittany was admitted to MD Anderson, a biopsy was taken and within a week she was diagnosed with a very rare cancer called Ewings sarcoma, which primarily occurs in children but also young adults. MD Anderson had discovered several tumors, Grizzle said. One caused a 90 percent blockage in one of her lungs. Another tumor was on a rib by her lung and yet another had formed on her pelvis and had grown into her abdomen.

Grizzle said that after the cancer diagnosis, everyone in the family wore a bracelet with this bible passage, Isaiah 43:2:

When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.

Grizzle said there was a doctor at Covenant who had been on the staff at MD Anderson. They coordinated with him and Brittany was immediately transferred from MD Anderson to Covenant in July 2016.

The family rented a house in Lubbock so that someone could always be with her.

A port for chemotherapy was installed, and a routine of six chemo treatments began. The mixture was very strong.

At first, everyone was hopeful because Brittany was responding well to the initial rounds of treatment.

“The tumors in her rib, pelvis and abdomen were gone,” Grizzle said. “We were ecstatic.”

But at the fourth treatment, Brittany’s journey back to health went into reverse. And by the sixth treatment, a new spot appeared on her shin.

Grizzle said that about the same time that spot appeared, they heard that a world-class cancer researcher in Carlsbad, Dr. Mohmad Ajaz Bulbul, wanted to get involved with the case. Bulbul had joined Kymera Independent Physicians in Carlsbad in the fall of 2012.

Brittany was transfered from Lubbock to Carlsbad.

After a second biopsy, Grizzle said that Bulbul insisted that a DNA sequencing test be performed. DNA sequencing tests for mutations in genes, and Brittany’s 15th and 19th chromosomes were fused.

Grizzle said everyone became hopeful, because the DNA sequencing determined that his daughter was a 100-percent match for immunotherapy.

“The labs said that they had never seen such a perfect match,” he said.

Immunotherapy, also called biologic therapy, is a type of treatment that boosts the body’s natural defenses to fight the cancer.

Sadly, along with the good news came bad news.

“The sequencing told us it was not Ewings, but NUT midline carcinoma,” Bulbul said.

NUT midline carcinoma is extremely aggressive and even more rare than Ewings. Grizzle said there are only about 200 patients in U.S. who have it.

Bulbul said, “We still don’t have good treatments for it. What that meant for Brittany is we ended up stopping any treatment she was getting to try immune therapy and get her into a clinical trial. But by the time that happened, she couldn’t make it to the trial.”

Brittany’s last days

On April 5, Brittany was rushed from Carlsbad back to Covenant. A tumor had completely blocked her stomach and she couldn’t urinate or have bowel movements, Grizzle said.

Covenant immediately did a urinary tract stint, and that gave her relief. Covenant also tried three different colon stints, but the tumor kept pushing them closed.

“Nothing worked,” Grizzle said. “Not even another round of chemo.”

Ultimately, Covenant did a colostomy and that did work.

There was renewed hope that immunotherapy could save Brittany’s life, but it was too late.

“Her kidney was the Achilles’ Heel,” Grizzle said. “It had to be monitored all the time. Her kidney shut down and she was probably gone within 48 hours. We were able to get her home so that she died in Carlsbad.”

To show community support, patrol cars from the Carlsbad Police Department escorted Brittany’s ambulance after it crossed the Texas/New Mexico state line on U.S. 380.

Brittany’s Hope Foundation

“When she was going through chemo at both Lubbock and Carlsbad, she talked to a lot of other patients who told her they had difficulty meeting their copays,” Grizzle said.

Also, many of the patients’ families could not afford a place to stay close to their loved one as Brittany’s family could.

It was Brittany’s religious beliefs and desire to help others that inspired the foundation, Grizzle said.

“Brittany wasn’t afraid to die because of her faith in God,” he said. “She asked that if she didn’t make it that we help those who couldn’t afford basic care.

“We formed a foundation called Brittany’s Hope. Dr. Bulbul, the oncologist, helped us guide the foundation, which is under the umbrella of Faith, Hope and Love in Carlsbad. The Carlsbad community has helped a lot.”

Java Nick’s Coffee Hut in Carlsbad held a fundraiser and donated all of its sales to the foundation. A television station picked up on the fundraiser, and the publicity inspired 10 families in Carlsbad to match the amount raised at Java Nick’s.

“People were standing in line buying cups of coffee for $100,” Grizzle said. “Java Nick’s raised $16,000.”

Additionally, $50,000 was raised at a golf tournament and a Dining and Dancing with Daddy fundraising event was held at the Riverside Country Club in Carlsbad last month.

Grizzle said his daughter’s favorite song was “Daddy’s Little Girl” sung by the Mills Brothers. The father and daughter danced to that song at her wedding.

Brittany had started a vacation bible school for special-needs children at her church, First United Methodist, in Carlsbad and the church is continuing that ministry despite her absence.

Grizzle said almost 1,000 people attended Brittany’s funeral.

Bulbul said that although Brittany’s death was a tragedy, through her death there is now more hope for patients who are battling similar cancers.

Further, he said that money already raised by the foundation is being used to help indigent patients pay their deductibles. Also, the knowledge that researchers gained from her case has been presented at oncology conferences with the goal of finding better treatments.

“It was amazing how grateful she and family were toward the end of her life,” Bulbul said. “They took all that pain and made it into something positive. We are grateful to Brittany and her family.”

On Aug. 15, the day that would have been Brittany’s 37th birthday if she had survived, a balloon release was held at her home in Carlsbad.

Grizzle said a split second after the balloons began to ascend, a cloud that was blocking the sun moved away and rays of sunshine beamed down to greet the balloons.

Editor’s note: The Faith, Hope and Love Foundation is the parent organization for Brittany’s Hope. Donations can be mailed to 933 N. Canal St., Carlsbad, NM 88220. Put Brittany’s Hope in the message line on the check.

Community News reporter Timothy P. Howsare can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or vistas@rdrnews.com.