03/12/11 — In Buddy's honor: Brother to perform at fundraiser to fight disease

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In Buddy's honor: Brother to perform at fundraiser to fight disease

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on March 12, 2011 11:27 PM

Growing up, brothers Buddy and Kevin Palaganas shared a passion for music.

"We loved jamming together, that was our time," Kevin said.

They initially favored percussion instruments, until Kevin reached college and shifted to the classical guitar.

"(Buddy) came to my senior recital at UNC-Wilmington and he recorded it," Kevin, now 28, recalls. "He was going to be funny with the camera. He would like zoom in on my face or my hands or the lights above me, then would turn (the camera) on himself.

"He enjoyed the camera a lot. But at the time, I thought, 'Why can't you just be serious and film it?' He enjoyed those concerts. He appreciated it."

These days, Kevin is left to cherish not only that memory but the fact that he can watch it on video and smile at the antics that were typical of his younger brother.

One year ago, on March 9, 2010, Benjamin "Buddy" Palaganas died from a bone marrow failure disease known as aplastic anemia. He was 23.

It's been a tough year for the family, said the boys' father, Tony Palaganas.

"My family (which also includes wife Mary Jane and older children from previous marriages) has been grieving the loss of our youngest son," he said. "But this story is not so much about his death and the events leading up to it. It's Buddy's brother, Kevin, and the unfailing love of one brother to another."

Everyone grieves in his own way, Tony said. And in some respects it was especially hard on Buddy's closest friend and ally, his older brother.

Kevin dropped out of college briefly, but instead of getting submerged by the loss, has managed to resume his education and is currently working on his master's degree in classical guitar at East Carolina University. He hopes to one day open up his own guitar studio, he said.

Two months after his brother's passing, Kevin had an idea of a way to honor Buddy's memory, while raising money and awareness of the disease that claimed his life -- a classical guitar concert at the family's home church, Rosewood First Baptist.

The church is right across the street from Rosewood Middle School, where 10 years ago, at age 14 Buddy was struck by a car while walking from a basketball game.

It would be after that hospital emergency room visit that the family first heard the diagnosis that changed everything. Blood tests showed very low red blood cell and white blood cell counts, flagging the doctors to run further tests.

The diagnosis came back that he had aplastic anemia, caused when the immune system attacks and kills bone marrow stem cells. Symptoms vary, but typically include fatigue and susceptibility to sore throats, fevers, nosebleeds and bruising.

Because of the car accident, Buddy went through extensive mouth reconstruction, was out of school and was tutored at home for months, and relied on heavy doses of pain medication.

"When it came time to wean him off the oxycodone, he couldn't handle the withdrawal," his father recalled. "He later turned to alcohol and had to go to rehab. At age 22, he entered rehab for six weeks, then a halfway house for almost a year.

"But he kicked it and dedicated himself to helping others in the halfway house."

On the threshold of turning his life in a positive direction, it was unfortunately too late, Tony said.

"He started having internal bleeding, caused by liver failure," he explained. "With aplastic anemia you must stay away from alcohol because that exacerbates it, and the liver damage had already been done. ... He was hospitalized with esophageal bleeding. In January 2010, we brought him back here. In February, he was airlifted to Pitt and passed away in March."

The family has been dealt another blow, as Kevin also has aplastic anemia.

"We suspected it when he was a freshman at UNC-W," his father said. "He was diagnosed about a year later. It's hereditary. Statistically, two out of a million people will get this. (Mary Jane and I) are fine. I'm a carrier, but I don't have it."

At the outset, though, everyone was so focused on Buddy's situation that Kevin let his own health take a back seat. He has since undergone tests and is working closely with the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland on options.

The family has been so impressed with the Institute, Tony said, that they decided to do something to support research efforts there.

"There's a lot of work that they do there, research that costs a lot of money," Kevin said.

Holding a benefit concert in their home community will not only bring a taste of classical guitar music to Rosewood, but allow him to educate others on the disease.

"It makes me feel like I'm a part of something," he said. "I always felt, where am I going to be in this world, where do I fit in?

"I'm a part of something, giving back to the community and at the same time I'm using my talents."

The outlet has also been therapeutic in other ways.

Throughout the planning stages in anticipation of the event, Kevin said he has felt the presence of his brother, virtually guiding him to complete the task.

And if Buddy were here today, what would he say about the memorial tribute?

"Awesome, cool, man, sounds really good," Kevin said with a smile.

His goal is to raise $10,000, with every penny from the concert and online donations going directly to the Aplastic Anemia and MDS International Foundation.

"Even now, I feel that it's a success," Tony said. "Just the fact that we have made the community aware of aplastic anemia, and if it can alert any mother or father or any family that sees their son bruises easily or bleeds a lot or constantly has coughs, colds, fever, if I can just alert one mother to that. ...

"The loss of our son has left a hole in our hearts that can never be filled. But with my son (Kevin's) talents and his decision to do this, I'm so proud of him for doing this."

The classical guitar concert will be held Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. at Rosewood First Baptist Church. Admission is free but a love offering will be taken.

In addition to Kevin Palaganas, featured artists include Professor Robert Nathanson of UNC-Wilmington, Dr. Elliott Frank of East Carolina University, the Osiris Duo and the ECU guitar ensemble.

For more information, write kwp4783@gmail.com or visit www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/buddyinmemoryof.