By GREG TUFARO STAFF WRITER The slightest thing — a commercial, a picture, a memory — can trigger a wave of emotion in Stuart James that fills his heart with ineffable sadness over the loss of his only son, Brandon. “I think I understand now when people say that they are heartbroken,” James said. “I didn’t understand what that meant before, but I think I do now. I’ll tell you, there’s not a day that goes by since this happened that I haven’t cried.
“It’s missing him and also missing the opportunities I thought he would have had in life, because I think he would have been a great asset to people and this world.” Brandon, a popular 17-year-old South Brunswick High School senior who took several honors level and advanced placement courses with the hopes of attending an Ivy League college, collapsed and died during a Dec. 17 recreation basketball game at the Crossroads Middle School.
Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, an inherited cardiovascular disease more commonly known as an “enlarged heart,” caused Brandon to go into sudden cardiac arrest. A friend who is an experienced lifeguard immediately administered CPR shortly before emergency medical technicians unsuccessfully tried to restart Brandon’s heart with a defibrillator. “The kids (at South Brunswick High School) are still very broken about this,” said Brandon’s mother, Karen Murray, noting that her son, despite his quiet nature and occasionally quirky personality, was immensely popular.
“Just as recently as (last week) the kids are still writing on his (Facebook) wall. They are telling him how much they miss him.” An avid sports fan, Brandon and his father bonded through athletics, even though James didn’t really share his son’s passion. “Brandon and I had a very strong bond,” James said. “He was a great sports enthusiast and I really had very little use for sports. I coached his soccer team for a number of years, something which I never played, but I did that because those are the things you are supposed to do to create a bond.
“We’d throw the baseball in the backyard, things like that. And basketball. Of course, we’d play in the driveway, and of course he’d beat me all the time because he was so much better than I was. Once he was my size (6-foot-3), there was no stopping him.” Developing a close relationship, even a friendship with Brandon, was paramount to James. “I have a good relationship with my father but we are not real close, and I really wanted to be close (to Brandon), to have ourselves be close when he got older,” James said. “And I think we were having that, and that’s actually one of the most heartbreaking things about what has happened, because we were really getting to the point where we were not only father and son, we were getting to be friends.
“He was getting to be an adult and we started talking about adult things. In addition to just missing him in general, I started to fast forward to the future, and I missed what I think was going to be.” Getting tested Knowing that HCM is an inherited disease, James said he feels some guilt, fearing he may have passed a gene down to Brandon that caused his death. “I’m thinking, if this is something hereditary, then, oh my gosh, somehow I gave him some horrible gene that created this situation,” James said. “I don’t feel frustration or anger because I’m thinking I don’t know really how practically this could have been avoided.”
A comprehensive echocardiogram is the best tool to determine cardiovascular abnormalities, including HCM, but with no warning signs, members of the James family had no impetus to get screened. “You always hear about these things with athletes, but with Brandon, I think it’s ironic,” James said. “It happened to happen while he was playing a basketball game, but he wasn’t really an athlete. The only reason that he would have been picked up is if something happened to my wife or me and we became aware.”
Murray, James and their daughter Kristen, a 21-year-old student at the University of Maryland, will undergo extensive cardiac screening. Kristen is scheduled for an exhaustive exam at Johns Hopkins University Hospital next month. James vividly recalls a story similar to Brandon’s occurring in April 2009 when 17-year-old Edison High School senior Kittim Sherrod died during a track practice. Like Brandon, Sherrod’s cause of death was also attributed to HCM.
“I specifically remember hearing about Kittim on the news and thinking, oh my God,” James said. “Apparently, a healthy, young kid essentially dropped dead while running track. I even discussed that with Brandon. “What a strange thing that is. And now look.” Brandon’s death has turned James’ life upside down. The son who literally used to kiss him goodbye each morning has been ripped from his family world, and the father fears he will never be the same. “I think we had the perfect little world going here and I never really took that for granted,” James said.
“I never really took for granted that I thought we had a charmed life. “I think we (still) have a good life. It’s just there’s this huge piece that’s missing and it’s hard to sort of wrap your head around the fact. “Intellectually, you know what happened, but it’s hard to imagine you are really not going to see him any more.”