The Sunday Series (63), with Mark Brodinsky

You heed the call, especially for someone you love,  someone who shares your heart, someone who shares your blood.  When it’s time to step up and say “I will”, family comes first. By demonstrating your courage and sharing your story you will inspire others and give them hope.

After all, everyone has a story.

I am Mark Brodinsky and this is the Sunday Series.


clayton graham brothers

The Sunday Series (63): Superheroes

When you’ve been fighting for it all your life,
you’ve been struggling to make things right,
it’s how a superhero learns to fly.

– lyrics from Superheroes, by The Script

It is a moment, Day Zero, that Clayton and Graham Cowan will remember for the rest of their lives. It is a day that will cement the bond these boys have as brothers, because one will give unselfishly to the other, and by doing so, give him life. It is sacrifice, it is love, it is forever.

It was back in 2005, when Clayton was only 2-1/2 years old that his journey truly began. Gravely ill, the toddler lay in a hospital bed with an unstoppable infection in his lungs. The doctors just informed his mother and father, Marty and John Cowan, there was nothing more they could do. “It was like having an out-of-body experience” says Marty. “They sent a priest to talk to us, asked where we went to church, it’s something you never want to hear about your kid. Is he dying? I didn’t know and I didn’t want to hear. I was holding Graham, my other son, my 5-month-old baby in my arms, and the doctors are telling us they couldn’t fix Clayton.”

For two weeks the doctors at this local Baltimore hospital had been trying to find a way to “fix” Clayton, but nothing was working. When they told the Cowan family there was nothing more they could do a decision was made to put the young boy in an ambulance and transfer him to Johns Hopkins Children Center, Clayton’s last hope.

Thankfully for Clayton, it was the right decision. Within two days of arriving at Hopkins, there was a diagnosis, chronic granulomatous disease, a disorder which causes the immune system to malfunction, unable to protect the body from bacteria and fungi. An infection can be deadly. Clayton went into surgery and a picc line was inserted. And as Marty describes it, “the wonderful people who work in the labs there, who don’t get much credit, finally paired up medicine that fought this infection and it worked. They did it and it was a miracle.”

clayton in hospital billboard with clayton

At the tender age of two, and in a battle for survival, young Clayton was getting a new lease on life, albeit a life of continual medications and extra safety precautions. For the past ten years he has been on antibiotics, anti-fungal medicine, and an immune-boosting injection, interferon gamma, to make sure his body can ward off bacteria and infection. Clayton has been fortunate, the disease has not stopped him from living the pretty full life any young boy desires, he just has to watch his step and stay away from mold and bacteria, two things which could potentially cause serious infection, or even be a killer.

“It can be scary”, says Marty. “Clayton can’t go into any fresh water situations, can’t go in the ocean or rivers because of the risk of bacteria. He has to stay away from things like mulch, which has mold spores and could potentially be deadly for him. On the elevator if someone has a runny nose, or is sneezing, we don’t know if that person has a bacterial infection, and I just want to cover Clayton’s mouth and shelter him.”  Even a fun time out with the family can bring hazards. “Clayton went on a ride at an amusement park”, says Marty, “and we realized after he was on the ride, there was mold on it (from the rain and the elements), and we couldn’t get him off, I almost had a heart attack.”

Outside of the inherent dangers however, Clayton, now 12-years-old, lives a normal existence. He loves video games and playing baseball. And most recently in this game of life – Clayton and his family have been offered the chance to hit a home run – though that chance is never guaranteed, Clayton has decided to step up to the plate and take a mighty swing. A bone marrow transplant.

All the hurt, all the lies,
All the tears that they cry.
When the moment is just right
you see fire in their eyes.

Marty says, “once we found out Clayton was a candidate for a bone marrow transplant and it could offer a cure, we had to consider it because what does it mean for him if we don’t do it?  If not he will have to be on strong medications for years and years to come and what will this do to his organs? Plus, there is no guarantee the medications will stop him from getting another life-threatening infection. The decision is not an easy one to make. John and I went to several meetings at Hopkins and second opinions at the National Institute of Health. We told Clayton about the potential for a cure and he met with the doctors at Hopkins. We asked him what he would like to do and he thought we should go for it. It’s his body, he is 12-1/2-years-old and he didn’t really think about it too long, he said ‘yes, I want to do this’ and we said we will support you.”

cowan family

“Cause he’s stronger than you know,
a heart of steel starts to grow.

The only question then, who would be a match for Clayton.  A high-resolution blood test gave the Cowan family their answer. 10-year-old Graham is a solid match for his older brother. The transplant is scheduled for June 2nd. Clayton will be admitted on May 19th in preparation for the transplant, what the docs refer to as  “day negative-14″. Graham will have a marrow harvesting procedure the day before the transplant, negative day-1. Transplant day is day zero. Then the wait begins, plus-1, plus-2, etc to make sure Clayton’s body accepts and starts generating its own marrow.

Marty plans to live with her son at the hospital during the week, John will take the weekends, until Clayton can be released  hopefully at the end of July. And Marty won’t just be living at Hopkins, she will physically and mentally be improving the lives of others sharing the journey.

Yoga is one of the loves of Marty’s life and she is in the process of becoming a certified Yoga instructor, through Charm City Yoga in Baltimore. The entire pediatric oncology floor at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center will benefit from Marty’s presence there because, through Yoga, she is personally giving back to the caregivers of these patients.  She has been cleared by Hopkins to teach yoga to the parents and caregivers on the oncology floor, and anyone else who would like to participate, as a way for them to step away from care-giving and stress and focus on some stretching and a respite to tap into their mind, body and spirit.


“I am hopeful that this will carry on and help the parents to be stronger and get them through the situation a little easier”, says Marty. That is really my goal and my mission. Even after Clayton is discharged I plan on going back there to keep the program going.”

Marty has created a benefit for the Johns Hopkins Children Center, a fun-run on April 26th, as a way to raise money to help pay for the yoga supplies: mats, (from lulu lemon, which seem to be the easiest to clean),  blocks and straps. Equipment she will leave behind after Clayton is discharged and will be used again and again when Marty comes back to teach.

Once Clayton goes home he will still return to Hopkins for months for monitoring and maintenance. He will be entering the 7th grade next fall, but he won’t physically be at school until after the holiday season. Instead the state has arranged for a tutor to come to the Cowan’s home through the fall and Clayton will re-enter school in January of 2016.

In the meantime, Marty is reflecting on the lessons she is learning on this journey. “I think the most important thing I’ve learned is having compassion for people that you don’t know”, she says. “Because you don’t know where they’ve been and you don’t know what they have been through. All of our kids are special, this is just part of our journey and our story. There are kids right now going through transplants who are sick and the big question mark is what’s going to happen to them and how do we fix them. It is stressful for any family and I think everyone deserves a break and we should do all we can to pay it forward.”

It’s all about forward progress. It’s what we all want out of life and it creates a sense of urgency when someone is sick, especially a child. The very fabric of our lives become bound up in their well-being, our future happiness dependent on theirs. When you create life it becomes part of your mission to see it through, to guard and protect, to nurture so that that life gets the best shot it  can to be fulfilled. In just about two months time Clayton will receive that gift, that “best shot” from his brother Graham, who will sacrifice a piece of his own body and trade it for a chance for Clayton to live out a life without the risk of fatal infection, a life of freedom from hospitals, doctors and weekly injections.

He’s got a beast in his belly
that’s so hard to control.
Cause he’s taken too much hits,
taking blow by blow,
now light a match, stand back, watch them explode.

Heroes. Sometimes the word is used a bit too liberally, in this case it seems to fit. Clayton and Graham Cowan – forming an eternal bond which will be reinforced by what is to come. Blood brothers, and a life transformed by the sacrifice of another. Though neither boy yet to reach their teen years, the early part of their lives and their journey will serve as a constant reminder of what life is all about, living up to their mother’s own vision and lessons learned about compassion. Give back, love, care and watch the world and the people around you be transformed.

graham and clayton hug

When you’ve been fighting for it all your life,
you’ve been struggling to make things right,
it’s how a superhero learns to fly.

(Marty and Clayton recently did an interview on Mix 106.5 for the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. Do yourself a favor, be inspired, give it a listen and learn how superheroes can really fly.)

Until next time, thanks for taking the time.

Mark Brodinsky, Author, Writer, Blogger, Speaker, Emmy-Award Winner, Financial Services

Author: It Takes 2. Surviving Breast Cancer: A Spouses’s Story

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Every Breath You Take: It’s Just About… Life


It’s one of our most basic human functions: breathe in, breathe out. For most of us it comes naturally, (though not for all unfortunately). We don’t think about it, it just happens.

But connect each breath you take to what it is you want to accomplish and then you might just want to focus on your breathing.  If you desire to do big things, if you are trying to reach your potential, then you should be aware of every breath you take, especially your next one.

Consider this from Grant Cardone, author of The 10X Rule:

An interesting thing about success is that it’s like a breath of fresh air; although our last breath of air is important, it’s not nearly as important as the next one. Become obsessed with the next breath of accomplishment.

You must keep breathing to survive, so holding on to that last breath you took, and trying not to breathe again will eventually end your life. But you have the desire to truly live, right?  You want to do accomplish feats the world marvels at, you want to leave a mark of significance, or do you?

If you do, you have to focus on your next breath. And the next one and the next one and the next one…. it’s always about moving forward, not standing still, or holding your breath waiting for something to happen to you. No, it’s about making things happen, getting ready for the next intake of fresh air. Every moment, every second is a new one to embrace.

This is life and you have no choice but to keep breathing, become obsessed with your next breath of accomplishment, even if your chest feels heavy, even if the air feels thick. Sometimes it will. Keep breathing. Remember that next breath is coming, embrace it, savor it. Start breathing deeply, start breathing hard and with purpose and then tell the world to get out of your way.  Make your mark on the world, shape it, mold it, prove that every breath you take matters. Because it does.

just breathe

Until next time, thanks for taking the time.


Mark Brodinsky, Author, Blogger, Speaker, Emmy-Award Winner, Financial Services

Author: The #1 Amazon Best-Seller: It Takes 2. Surviving Breast Cancer: A Spouse’s Story

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The Sunday Series (62), with Mark Brodinsky

In this thing we call life there are so many moments, happy, sad, joy, despair and everything in between. The challenge of truly living your life comes from the ability to face it head-on no matter what the circumstance. Make no mistake it’s not easy – finding a reason to move forward despite what is pushing you back.  And if you share your story, others can learn as well.

Courage. Hope. Inspiration.

I am Mark Brodinsky and this is The Sunday Series.

The Sunday Series (62): There Is Always Hope

christian and jason picture

For Jason Semler it was this day, when as a young boy, he got a cut on his leg. His mom put a band-aid over “the boo-boo” on the side of his left calf, exactly halfway between his ankle and his knee.  For this young man who loved to play basketball, it was a turning point. With that band-aid on his leg, Jason went out and played the best game of his life. From that point on, every day of his life, Jason religiously wore a band-aid, his good luck charm, and one he never wanted to give up.


In November, 1997 Jason Semler enlisted in the Air Force. It was an easy decision for him, growing up a “military brat”, Jason was used to the travel, his dad Bernie, had served as an Air Force Master Sergeant. Jason ended up serving as Staff Sergeant, stationed with the 728th Air Control Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. He did a brief tour in Kuwait, and later led a communications unit during the War in Iraq. His squadron was also one of the first to be deployed in Baghdad International Airport during Operation Iraqi Freedom. During his time in service, Jason said that he had one vision: “To get all my guys home safely!” He did just that and earned the respect, numerous military awards and was held in high regard from all those who served with him. He completed nine years in the Air Force, before separating from the service in December of 2006.

While in Florida in 2000, Jason met the woman who would change his life, Christian Stone.

christian and jason wedding

The couple married in 2005 and Christian said it was Jason’s smile that captured her own heart and could light up a room. She says, “when he walked in everything seemed to be better when he was around.” For Jason and Christian that smile barely dimmed, but it started to flicker shortly after Jason’s return home from the war in 2003.

jason in air force

Christian says the changes were subtle at first, Jason started drinking more, but after a time the trouble with alcohol seemed to fade away. Then there was his temper. Christian says “Jason would get agitated really, really easily, though after a time that also balanced out. What was consistent however were the night terrors, or tremors. Jason would jerk a lot in his sleep. He didn’t even know he was doing it, but he was also having trouble sleeping. It was almost as if he was two different people. When he was home he was reserved, he never wanted to talk about his feelings, but he always quick to “take on” everyone else’s feelings. It was almost like if he helped someone else, he would be helping himself.”

christian and jason with dogs

And Christian says Jason loved to help other people.  “He was loved by all types of people”, she says. “There was no line for Jason. It didn’t matter who you were or where you came from, he treated you like family and he helped everybody. He encouraged and helped all of his troops apply for and attend college. He helped our neighbor fill out all his college applications and grant forms and even took him to tour college campuses. The boys parents didn’t see the need for a college education, so Jason took it upon himself to make sure he got one. Everything Jason did was to help other people.”

But in the shadows, it was Jason who may have needed more help than anyone.

Christian says there was never any follow-up, guidance or counseling when Jason got back from his overseas stint with the Air Force and his time with Operation Iraqi Freedom. The transition back into normal, everyday life was a learn-as-you-go process. By 2006 Jason had separated from the military, but he took a job which required top-secret clearance with Sierra Nevada Corporation. Christian says Jason’s position as a field engineer with the company led to three more trips back overseas, “and every time he returned his personality changed even more”, says Christian.

In the meantime, Jason was focusing on helping other servicemen suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was doing it person-by-person, just talking and listening. Christian says sometimes that’s all it would take. But no one was listening to Jason… because he wasn’t speaking about his own experiences.

jason in blues

As time passed, things were getting more difficult for Jason. Christian says at home Jason needed everything to be a certain way. If one thing was out-of-place it would immediately put him in a bad mood, agitate him. It was not easy. Christian says she and Jason talked about counseling many times, but because he had top-secret clearance with his current job,  he was afraid he would lose his job. Christian says Jason felt he could handle it himself.

To work at Sierra Nevada Corporation Jason had to go through psychological evaluations, but Christian says Jason hid his struggles, never being honest with the doctors. His family didn’t notice much and if anyone did and tried to talk to Jason about it Christian says Jason would turn the conversation around and walk away.

All this time Jason was still trying to help other people with their problems. He still had that smile, the one that brought a bright light to others outside his own darkness. Christian says Jason made the family gatherings more fun, he would always attend his nieces and nephews ballgames, and he made sure to always support the family.

The past two years however things had changed.

Jason was losing weight, and he was drinking again, a lot. Christian says Jason would drink on the weekends, but he was going one step further now, lying about the alcohol abuse, by telling her he was at work, when he was really out at the bar. There were secret hiding places in the house where Jason had stashed his liquor.  Places Christian never knew existed. Lies and deceit.

And Jason had stopped doing something else he loved – going to the games – he would no longer show up at the ballgames for his nieces and nephews – claiming work was getting in the way.

Just a few weeks ago Christian needed to fly down to Florida to visit her father, who is battling stage 4 cancer. She left on a Thursday, planning to return the following Tuesday. On Sunday, March 1st she received a text from Jason. He said someone sideswiped his car. “I immediately called him”, says Christian. “He said he was at work and somebody sideswiped it. I said to Jason, ‘It’s Sunday, why would you be working? And even if you were, you are so careful to have everything in its spot, you park in a place where no one could have hit it’.  He got angry with me and hung up.”

Forty minutes later there was another text from Jason: “I hit a car tonight and the cops were just here.” Christian immediately responded, “I called him back and he said to me, ‘my life is over, there is no hope.’ “I told him, Jason it’s not, there is always hope, if you allow yourself to get help. He said, ‘it’s too late, it’s too late’. “I said it’s not too late. Then he said, “I love you babe, you are the best thing that ever happened to me.’  “He hung up the phone…. and he was gone.”


With a single gunshot, Jason Semler chose to end his life that night. After a frantic call from Christian, Jason’s father and brother-in-law went to the couple’s home – only to find the TV on, candles lit, and in Jason and Christian’s bedroom – the shock of their lives.

“His parents, me, his friends, everybody is still in shock”, says Christian. “Everyone is taking it really hard, nobody saw this coming. He never talked to anyone about anything like this and I’ve asked everybody.”

jason memorial

Though there has been no official diagnosis, all signs point to Jason dealing with the consequences of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Although now nearly a decade since separating from the Air Force, sometimes these symptoms don’t surface for months or years after an event, or returning from deployment. They may also come and go. It appears the same struggles Jason had been helping other friends in the military to overcome, by talking with them, by guiding them through it, in his own life, Jason’s path became unbearable. His bright smile that “lit up the room”, was masking his own demons, hiding his tears of pain. In his mind, hope was lost.

But as Christian told her husband the last time they ever spoke, hope is never lost. “I think that Jason knows that no matter what would have happened, I would have loved and supported and been there for him”, she says. “And his family would have done the same thing. I don’t know what would have caused him to do this. We always had an honest relationship and the hardest part to get over are the lies about his pain and about the drinking. I’ve tried to research PTSD, I’ve tried to research suicide, but I read a few pages and then break down. It’s not obvious if you don’t know what you are looking for.”

ptsd poster

(Some of the most common symptoms of PTSD include recurring memories or nightmares of the event(s),sleeplessness, loss of interest, or feeling numb, anger, and irritability, but there are many ways PTSD can impact everyday life. The secret may be awareness. There are numerous resources on the internet, the link to the official government site is here: (

Christian’s ability to share this very private story only three weeks after Jason’s death is beyond courageous, and it is her hope in doing so she might save a life. In her own life, Christian is left trying to understand. She says there is no message, no lesson yet in all of this because she is still trying to “figure it out.”  But she does have a place to start.


After everything that happened,  Christian went into the couple’s bedroom to retrieve some of Jason’s clothes, but what she saw on the floor was a band-aid, one of the band-aids Jason always wore on his left calf, for good luck.  “I saw it as a sign”, says Christian. I wanted to get the actual band-aid permanently secured onto my own leg, but they couldn’t do that, so I got a version tattooed on my calf. Two of Jason’s friends have gotten band-aid tattoos and his father and brother-in-law are getting a band-aid tattoo on Monday.”

christian bandaid tattoo

Though a band-aid will not heal the deep, cavernous wound in Christian’s heart, it’s a start. You have to start somewhere. Memories of the warmth of her husband’s smile, and time, lots of time, will eventually create the permanent bandage to secure Christian’s own heart, as well as listening to the stories from Jason’s friends and the many, many lives he touched and helped. Despite his own demons, Jason managed to live a life of significance by doing the things that will forever endear him to others – giving back, serving his country and serving others, so many others with whom he came in contact.

When that happens, when you touch and serve others, you’ve done the one thing that leaves your mark on the world, for which you will be forever remembered – you made others glad you lived.

jason and christian last pic

Until next time, thanks for taking the time.


(To read more about Jason’s life and how he affected others, visit the Facebook Page: Remembering Jason Semler: (

Mark Brodinsky, Author, Blogger, Speaker, Emmy-Award Winner, Financial Services

Author: The #1 Amazon Best-Seller: It Takes 2. Surviving Breast Cancer: A Spouse’s Story

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The Great Date: It’s Just About… Life

date with yourself

March 18th. That’s today’s date. It’s a great day, your day to have a great date, especially if you have never had one before. It might be the most important date you ever have. And not it’s not the date with your spouse (important), your boyfriend or girlfriend (important), your kids (important), your whole family (important), your work and responsibilities (important), your friends (important).

It’s none of the above. The date you need to go on and make it one of the best ever… focused, intense, and soulfully rewarding, is the date with you. It’s time to get to know yourself. And not only is that date important, it needs to happen every day.

But getting to know yourself is not easy. Consider the following:

“We live in an age disturbed, confused, bewildered, afraid of its own forces, in search of not merely its road but even of its direction. There are many voices of counsel, but few voices of vision; there is much excitement and feverish activity, but little concert of thoughtful purpose. We are distressed by our ungoverned, undirected energies and do many things, but nothing long. It is our duty to find ourselves.”

The quote above, taken from a commencement address at Princeton, could easily have been spoken today. But it wasn’t. It is from a speech by President Woodrow Wilson, in 1907!  The more things change, the more things stay the same. As a matter of fact, if you go back in time you will find much of the same challenges as today. Time may move forward, we may advance in technology and speed of life, but at the core, one thing never changes; we are humans and our basic needs, desires, and uphill battles are still the same. The same shortcomings from centuries ago still exist today, and one of those is taking action on the one thing which can give you a strong sense of purpose and direction in your life. And it is the one thing which can lead you to feeling fulfilled and creating significance.

It is growth, personal growth.

How do you get there? Make a date.

I am currently re-reading several books in preparation for some speeches I have the opportunity to write for a large recognition event next month for the Greater Baltimore Medical Center, an event focused on leadership.  You want to know how I earned the opportunity? I figured out what my strength and purpose is – and then practice, dedication, conviction and awareness of a chance when it presented itself. However, those are simply direct consequences of the one date I have had as consistently as I can over the past few years, nearly ever day. That date has allowed me to tap into what makes me tick and stay on the ever-challenging journey to reach my potential. That journey by the way, never ends.

So I ask you, can you ask yourself out on a date?

And don’t just take my word for it, I mean who is Mark Brodinsky? Funny thing is every day I’m getting the answer to that question. So allow me to lend support to my conviction. This is an excerpt taken directly from the book, The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth, by John C. Maxwell. If you don’t know Maxwell, it’s OK, but his resume speaks for itself. He is an author, coach and speaker who has sold more than 24 million books and  trained more than 5 million leaders in 180 countries. He has been called America’s #1 Leadership Authority. The following excerpt is all about your next great date:

Take a look at your calendar for the next twelve months. How much time have you specifically scheduled for personal growth? If you’re like most people, your answer will be none. That’s not going to cut it. Rework your calendar so you have an appointment (date) with yourself for personal growth every day, five days a week, fifty weeks a year. You might be thinking, What? I don’t have time for that! That’s probably true. Do it anyway. If you want to succeed, you need to do whatever it takes. Get up an hour early. Stay up an hour later. Give up your lunch hour. Put in extra time on the weekends. If you don’t you’ll have to prepare to give up your dreams and any hope of reaching your potential.

Start now. No matter what time of day you’re reading these words, make a commitment to start growing today. Give that first hour before you go to sleep tonight. Put in the time today and for the next five days. You probably won’t feel like doing it. Do it anyway.

It’s time for a great date and you can begin immediately, buy or download a book to help you. There are nearly two dozen books to choose from right on The Higher Shelf! page on this very blog. Read, learn, reflect, meet great people, attend great events, ask great questions. Visualize what it is you want to accomplish, start to figure out who you really are and then tap into your strengths and talents, the ones which are unique to you. And then –  and this is key –  find a way  to use those talents in service to other people.

Your challenge and everyone’s challenge is this: you need to find out who you are to grow, but you have to grow in order to find out who you are.

Have a great date today.

Until next time, thanks for taking the time.


Mark Brodinsky, Author, Blogger, Speaker, Emmy-Award Winner, Financial Services

Author: The #1 Amazon Best-Seller: It Takes 2. Surviving Breast Cancer: A Spouse’s Story

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