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Lawsuit accuses Arnold Palmer Hospital of boy’s death

Seven years after Spencer Beckstead died in hospital’s care, his father is still seeking justice

Photo: PHOTOS COURTESY OF JOHN BECKSTEAD, License: N/A

PHOTOS COURTESY OF JOHN BECKSTEAD

Photo: , License: N/A


Beckstead says he felt rage and anger that day in the emergency room, but he wasn’t yet in total despair. He says he had hope that his son would eventually recover some of the functionality he had before. After all, Spencer had already beat the odds once when he survived a brain surgery that removed a chunk of his brain the size of an adult’s fist, and more than 30 months of chemotherapy and radiation at St. Jude. The experience had already devastated the child once, Beckstead says.

“I just thought I was starting all over again,” Beckstead says. “Back to square one. He was just about in this shape when they operated on him, and he came back.”

Beckstead says he never imagined that, just four months later, his son would be dead.

“On Oct. 17, 1999, my life stopped at 10:20 in the morning, when they told me Spencer had a brain tumor,” Beckstead says. A box of newspaper clippings, old photographs and mementos, including a toddler-sized porkpie hat that Spencer used to wear to hide the network of scars that covered his head, are spread out on a table around him. “This was my pride and joy. This was why I lived, this was why I did everything. And they told me he had three months to live.”

But Spencer didn’t abide by that timeline. Though the odds were not in his favor, he endured his treatments. Three months turned to six, then a year, then another. “And that’s how we lived for four years,” Beckstead says. “He didn’t have time to die. Nobody told him. He just went on his merry way.

He was busy. He was always busy.”

So busy, in fact, that he became something of a minor celebrity on the PGA golf circuit at just 4 years old. In 2001, Memphis golf pro Shaun Micheel was visiting patients at St. Jude when he ran across Spencer and his dad in a hallway. He hit it off with the elder Beckstead, who happened to be a huge golf fan – and, for some reason, he also struck up an unusual but deep relationship with Spencer.

“Somehow, I just found something special with him, and I don’t know why,” Micheel told the Orlando Sentinel in a 2003 profile of the boy, whom Micheel drew attention to when he blurted out, “Hello, Spencer Beckstead in Orlando, see you next week,” on camera right before delivering what the Sentinel called “one of the greatest shots in major-championship history” at the 85th PGA Championship in 2003. Suddenly, the golf world was wild about Spencer. He appeared in stories in the Sentinel and the Memphis Commercial Appeal. PGA Tour Productions filmed a feature on Spencer and Micheel palling around together. Spencer’s dad even started a nonprofit organization called Clubs for Cancer Kids that hoped to donate golf equipment to young cancer survivors interested in the sport.

Spencer was, by all accounts, an optimistic kid, and that was a lot of his appeal. Even after all he endured, Beckstead says, he had no idea he was a statistical survivor. Most of the kids who were treated with him at St. Jude did not live as long as Spencer did. “We only really cure a few children [of cancer],” he says. “Mostly we just prolong the lives of children, and they die from the adverse effects of the treatment itself.”

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