Kid Captain known for big heart


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When he was five years old, Joseph Burken persuaded his doctor to shave her head.

“If you’re scared, I’ll hold your hand,” he told her at a fundraiser for pediatric cancer in their hometown of DeWitt, Iowa, just moments after he had had his own head shaved for the cause.

Sue O’Dorisio, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Iowa’s Children’s Hospital, was only planning to give a talk at the fundraiser but was persuaded by Joseph’s caring attitude to contribute more to the cause.

“That’s just the kind of empathy he has for other people,” she said. “That’s just amazing at that age to have that understanding of people and what their needs are.”

Joseph’s big heart is one reason his parents, Julie and Wade Burken, nominated him to be a Kid Captain.

“The reason we nominated him was because we thought it would be a really cool experience for him,” Julie Burken said. “We were looking at the application … and we felt he became more of an advocate for cancer.”

Joseph, who is now 8, will get a chance to be such an advocate this Saturday as he takes to the field as the second Kid Captain of the year during the Iowa/Ball State football game.

For Joseph, the opportunity came as a surprise since his parents didn’t tell him they nominated him.

“[It felt] awesome,” Joseph said. “… It’s only one time in a lifetime, and I get to go to the football game and stand on the sideline.”

Standing on the sidelines and meeting the players is what Joseph is most excited about when it comes to being a Kid Captain this year.

Joseph was diagnosed with astrocytoma, a cancerous tumor in the center of his brain, during a family trip to Chicago in 2011. The doctors also found he had hydrocephalus — a buildup of fluid inside the skull that leads to brain swelling.

The recommended amount of chemotherapy treatment for this kind of cancer is eight to 10 rounds.

But Julie Burken said after going through nine rounds, they decided to stop the process.

Since then, she said, his tumor has shrunk measurably twice. Although the tumor will be in his brain for the rest of his life, Julie Burken said after two years of not growing, it should remain stable.

“Right now, we’re enjoying the fact that he’s stable,” she said.

Despite the ups and downs of having cancer, O’Dorisio said, Joseph doesn’t let them weigh him down.

“I think when kids have a challenge like a health challenge in their lives, they always have another really good challenge or gift that helps them overcome the challenge, and for Joseph this is just that he likes to see other people be happy,” she said. “You feel like ‘I should help this child be happy’ [but] he’s one of those kids that when you come out from seeing him, he always made you happy. It really is a gift that he has and he shares it with other people.”

Julie Burken said this is something other people tell her about Joseph as well.

“[His teachers] really talk about how helpful he is,” she said. “He loves to give and get things for people, and he was always really generous like that.”

One particular thing that really stuck out to the Burken’s was a book Joseph wrote after a family friend’s child was also diagnosed with cancer.

The book was titled “I had cancer, too by Joseph Burken, age 6” and was filled with drawings and sayings such as “I took a lot of pills,” “I had a lot of tests,” and “I played a lot.” Joseph gave the book to the family to help the other child feel better.

For Joseph, if he could give advice to other 8-year-olds, it would be all about staying positive and remembering the support system around you.

“I would say it’s not a really big deal, just fight back, and you’ve got the people who helped take care of you,” he said.

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