Leukemia diagnosis made Bishop J. Jon Bruno see his true impact

December 16, 2013 | by

Bishop J. Jon Bruno will be one of 11 former City of Hope patients riding atop our float on New Year's Day. Read other riders' stories and learn more about the float, "Turning Hope and Dreams into Reality."

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After returning home from cancer treatment at City of Hope in May 2012, J. Jon Bruno was astonished to see his Pasadena, Calif., family room crowded with mail bags filled with more than 25,000 handwritten letters. “I read every one of them,” said 67-year-old Bruno, bishop of the six-county Los Angeles Episcopal Diocese.

Bishop J. Jon Bruno

Bishop J. Jon Bruno of the L.A. Episcopal Diocese, shown here with his family, didn't realize his true impact until his diagnosis with leukemia. Now he views life a little differently. Photo courtesy of the Bruno family.

The charismatic, larger-than-life Bruno, who oversees 147 parishes and missions, 44 schools and 20 institutions, has become something of an institution himself.

The father of three and grandfather of seven – who was a professional football player and police officer before becoming an Episcopal priest then a bishop – has made the diocese a more “human-friendly place” through programs to feed the poor, stop gangs, wash the clothes of the homeless, house AIDS patients, collaborate with all religious faiths and, most controversially, support gay, lesbian and transgender rights.

Bruno’s well-wishes came from a microcosm of all those he has supported: a college student he baptized as an infant, a middle-aged man he’d coaxed out of gang life as a teenager, an elderly couple he helped survive the death of their child decades before.

“I found out about things that I would have just called my job that I did as part of my calling. Lo and behold,” said Bruno, “they meant a lot to somebody else. I was amazed there was that kind of impact. I never noticed.”

One of the most memorable letters came from a Johns Hopkins professor of random theory. As an infant, she had fallen into an unattended swimming pool in Virginia – and Bruno had heard the splash. He scaled the fence, rescued the face-down baby and breathed life back into her. Nearly 40 years later, in a six-page letter, “she recounted all the things that wouldn’t have happened in the world if I hadn’t done that.”

“That really made me think about purpose in my life, and what I’d done,” he said. “I wasn’t just a guy leading worship. I was a catalyst in people’s lives.”

His role as a 'catalyst'

Bruno’s path to the ministry was a circuitous route. “I had this inkling from the time I was 12 or 14 that I wanted to be a priest,” said Bruno, whose father was a Jesuit who left the order to marry his mother.

A high school and college football star, Bruno was recruited by the Denver Broncos, but an elbow injury abruptly ended his career. “I came back and sort of thought my life was over.” He considered teaching but decided that becoming a Burbank police officer would not only allow him to better support his wife, daughter and son, but also “help more people.”

He took to police work, yet grew weary of arresting kids and wanted to focus instead on keeping them out of trouble. While on the force, he became a part-time football coach in Burbank. “Giving young people a sense of what’s right and wrong, morals, then teaching them to be ethical and act out the right was really important to me. I didn’t know why. What I was gaining were transferable skills for the priesthood.”

“The first time I ever believed in prayer – even though I was raised Roman Catholic – I was a policeman in Burbank,” Bruno recalled.

Suddenly, Bruno is back in that defining moment – and pulls his listener in with him.

He was waiting at a traffic signal when “this guy came roaring past in a Corvette and blasted the side of a Volkswagen van, sending a little boy flying out from the back of the van and his head impacted the curb.”

After handcuffing the drunken driver to the remains of the car, Bruno rushed to the child, who was about 2, the same age as Bruno’s daughter. “I started giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. I put my hand behind his head – and all I got was mush. He just would not breathe. “I said, ‘Damn it, God, if you’re here, make this child breathe!’ And he started breathing.

"It wasn’t a very nice statement to God, but he started breathing,” stopping each time Bruno paused the resuscitation. It took 13 long minutes until the ambulance arrived, and Bruno rode along to make sure the child survived to the ER, where the doctor rebuked him for bringing the child back, given that he had likely consigned him to a brain-damaged life.

After his shift, Bruno returned to see how the child was doing. “He was gone,” Bruno said. “I thought for sure he died, but he’d been taken to UCLA, and they put a plate in his head.” The child suffered no permanent damage.

About a year later, he gave the department permission to give the child’s family his address. Before long, “this 3 ½ year old came and knocked on my door,” Bruno said, still clearly moved by the miracle child who has grown into 45-year-old “IT sort of genius” who still sends him Christmas cards.

The experience transformed not only the boy’s life, but Bruno’s, as well. “The thing was that I believed that something happens when we petition God.”

Making an appeal to God

In 2012, thousands of people petitioned God on behalf of Bruno.

That March, he had begun experiencing profound fatigue, but kept up his grueling pace. His terrible cough was dismissed as bronchitis, but Bruno grew concerned he might have a recurrence of the drug-resistant infection he contracted in Africa which cost him his left foot and ankle in 2005.

Soon, however, his condition was diagnosed as acute monocytic leukemia, and he came to City of Hope.

Bruno’s first reaction was not to pursue treatment. Over the years, he had ministered to many cancer patients, including his mother and sister, and decided “I’m not going through the hell of chemotherapy.”

He shared his decision with Mary, to whom he has been married for 29 years, and with their children. They asked him to try chemotherapy for seven weeks. Their intervention – and the treatment – worked.

“When doctors told me I was metabolically clear, my first response was ‘I’m going home.’” Instead he learned he’d have to be at the hospital on and off for the following five months.

Accustomed to being on duty all day every day, Bruno’s hospital confinement initially seemed as tough as the treatment. Yet, “I’ve never been cared for like I was cared for at City of Hope,” he said.

He began enveloping himself in the support of his community. “I got literally over 100 prayer shawls. I lay there and covered myself in them and felt the stitch-by-stitch love. One lady made a quilt. I used that to pray with for a lot of days.”

He also paid attention to his new flock at City of Hope. “The wonderful experience was everybody was behind masks. I learned to read their eyes. I could tell if they were sad, pensive or angry.” Noticing that one caregiver’s eyes seemed unhappy, he offered to listen if she needed to talk, and after her shift, she did. “I don’t give advice but I gave her ideas about what I would do.”

The experience uplifted him. “I got the opportunity to be pastoral while I was in the hospital, which is a big part of my being.”

Hospitalization sows the seeds for an epiphany

Also while hospitalized, Bruno was visited by diocese lay leader and agriculture expert Tim Alderson, who, coincidentally, was friends with Bruno’s endocrinologist Raynald Samoa, M.D.  After speaking with both, Bruno had an “epiphany” about developing a new program called “Seeds of Hope,” in which gardens and fruit trees will be collaboratively planted by Jewish and Episcopal congregations to supply nourishing fare to local food banks.

Besides his family (including newest grandson, Berkman), Bruno’s proudest achievements include scrubbing floors in Tijuana with Mother Teresa; learning about civil rights firsthand from mentors such as Rosa Parks, Desmond Tutu and Malcolm Boyd; and becoming a mentor in his own right. He’s also proud of the church across from Echo Park Lake that he helped grow from 17 parishioners to more than 500.

He attributes his restored health to a “conjoined effort of all the scientists, all of our prayers and all of the community love. My life is rich and more abundant,” he said, “than anybody could ask for or imagine.”

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For those who have battled cancer, each tomorrow is, in reality, a dream come true. On Jan. 1, 2014, former City of Hope patients treated at City of Hope will see another dream come true: They'll be riding atop City of Hope's float in the 2014 Tournament of Roses Parade.

City of Hope needs your support to build the float our patients will ride atop on New Years Day. Make a gift and add your wish to the float to help make dreams come true for our float riders.

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