As Batman, Arlington Heights dad expands his mission to help sick kids
Batman notices a shy and very sick little boy and knows exactly what to do.
Out of the corner of his eye, Batman can tell this kiddo, maybe 3 or 4 years old, has something to say but is too nervous to approach the Caped Crusader.
So Batman intentionally walks past the boy's room and visits the others in a pediatric unit at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield during a celebration of National Superhero Day two years ago.
The nurse shoots him a look as if to say, "You know you missed one." But the Dark Knight pretends to look around like he forgot something until he spots the boy. The act works.
"He goes, 'Um, Batman, I wanted to talk to you.' This little boy told me the schematics of the Batmobile almost down to the dimensions, to the point where I was having a really hard time keeping up," says Tim Brigham, the Arlington Heights man behind the mask. "He knew this better than I did. I'm playing along. I know real quick that I've got to get this right, because it's everything to this kid."
The boy gives just a few critiques of his Batman suit, an imposing, custom-made replica and not some knockoff. Batman asks the nurse for a pen and paper to write it all down.
"When he comes dressed as Batman, I think that it's easier for our pediatric patients to believe that the real Batman came, and quite frankly, the real one does," says Dora Castro-Ahillen, the hospital's child life coordinator. "He is a very kindhearted person who cares about others."
Comic-book fanboys will tell Brigham he has a cool gig dressing up as Batman to bring toys to hospitalized children. Brigham will inevitably get a few of those reactions when he hosts a fundraiser Tuesday night in Chicago for his charity, the Superhero Collective.
But Brigham takes his growing mission just as seriously as Christian Bale's menacing version of the Gotham City hero, even if he acts more like a dad when he wears the cowl.
"Dad jokes with a kid -- that's what works," says Brigham, the father of two sons. "They want a little bit of love, a little sarcasm."
Brigham's Batman provides a distraction and a few lighthearted but crucial moments when pediatric patients can think about something other than their illness and remember they're still kids.
"There's a little bit of awkwardness," Brigham says. "I've learned that my job is to go in, make them smile and leave, and staying longer almost accentuates the fact that they're sick."
Becoming Batman is both mentally exhausting and therapeutic for Brigham. Before he steps inside a hospital as his alter ego, he prays for the two babies he and his wife lost in late-term pregnancies.
"When you have pain, you have two options: Just be in pain or do something with it. You're already hurt. It doesn't matter," he says. "It doesn't matter that you're hurt. What are you going to do with it? What are you going to turn it into? And that's all I know how to do. I've been hurt plenty of times in my life. That's what fuels me."
He channels his grief into his Batman character, trying to give parents a much-needed, if temporary, break in the hospital.
"I know what it's like to be in that spot where you hate everyone," Brigham says. "People come in and try to comfort you, and they don't get it. I could have used a Batman showing up. I could have used somebody just to break the ice."
He and his wife, Melissa, started the Superhero Collective in 2014 shortly after their son, Dominick, now 6, passed out at Target and received treatment for a respiratory virus at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights.
"We just realized there are so many other kids stuck here, and we wanted to help," Melissa Brigham told the Daily Herald at the time. "We decided to do a toy drive and see what happened, but it wound up being a lot bigger than we thought."
The couple host annual fundraisers to pay for toys they handpick and deliver to kids in the hospital. At Tuesday's black-tie event, Brigham will officially announce a new initiative for Superhero Collective.
A Type-A Batman
Brigham talks about his dream with the kind of high-energy, fast-talking, Type-A personality you would expect from someone who works as a mortgage loan officer in the Loop.
His new goal is to raise enough money to buy a home near a hospital, renovate it and give it away to a family of a child with a terminal illness. He intends to work with hospitals to identify the family and design the home with a superhero theme.
Brigham knows it all sounds a bit "crazy," but he's always been someone who follows through on his big ideas.
"I don't know how many events I'm going to have to do, but we're not going to stop until we achieve this," he says.
He's already encouraged by the supporters of Tuesday's event, "A Night in Gotham." Former Chicago Bears tight end Desmond Clark is offering a private tour of Soldier Field as one of the donated packages up for bid at a live auction.
"I feel like the amount of support we've received so far and the amount of input we have, I think this is going to be one of the best events we've ever had," Brigham says.
When he first began wearing his costume from UD Replicas in California, Brigham admits he felt like a "complete fool."
"I'm a grown man in a Batman suit," he thought. "How nerdy is that?"
But he's usually able to overcome those self-doubts because he's seen so many times how Batman lifts the spirits of sick kids. In some cases, he knows he's "the last superhero they're going to see."
"There becomes a level of responsibility with signing on to do this type of work that you better be ready," he says.
At Central DuPage, Brigham has a special rapport with the youngest patients, Castro-Ahillen says.
"He has a very kind heart toward pediatric patients -- incredibly compassionate," she says. "I know that when we first reached out to him, it turned out that the day that we were celebrating Superhero Day was also his birthday, so we assumed that for sure he would not be able to come because it's his birthday."
But Batman still showed up and received a birthday card signed by patients.
"He has a way of talking to kids that also reflects his compassion toward them that helps make them feel better," Castro-Ahillen said. "In whatever way he can, he acknowledges that they are the superheroes after all."
'A Night in Gotham'What: A black-tie fundraiser for the Superhero Collective
When: 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, July 31
Where: IO Godfrey Rooftop Lounge, 127 W. Huron St., Chicago
Details: Live music, gourmet food, VIP guest appearances, along with a live auction featuring vacation packages; a guitar signed by Eddie Van Halen, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Carlos Santana, Slash, Neil Young, Edge and Pete Townshend; a Stan Lee Spiderman sketch; "Wonder Woman" and "Justice League" cast autographed movie posters; and other autographed memorabilia
Info: Thesuperherocollective.com or Heroes@thesuperherocollective.com