One by one, 5-year-old Natalie Willard pulls items from her backpack and proudly shows them to Jeff Keyser.
“I want to show you what I have in here,” she says.
There are accessories for her American Girl doll—a cooler, lemon, pear, pink suitcase, dog bed, dog collar. Then a book about Cinderella, her makeup bag, a headband, nail polish and her “business cards.”
She happily passes a pink and purple card to Keyser.
“And that’s it. But I have more stuff in here,” she adds, reaching for another bag.
Keyser receives each item with excitement, cracking jokes and eliciting smiles and giggles from Natalie. He’s in no rush.
As a volunteer for Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital’s Child Life team, his only goal is to help Natalie escape the four walls of her hospital room for a short time and think about something other than why she’s there.
Ready for play
Keyser has been volunteering on Monday nights for six years. Five years ago, he trained Burt Smith, and now the two of them spend every Monday night, 5-8 p.m., visiting patients, along with three other volunteers.
They have both served more than 500 hours.
“We’re just focused on trying to help them in any way possible,” Keyser said.
When Keyser and Smith first entered Natalie’s room on a recent Monday night, she sat eating nachos with her father, Sean Willard. He welcomed them in.
“She gets bored with her mom and I,” Willard said. “She’s social and loves volunteers and people just to play with her.”
Doctors diagnosed Natalie with stage four neuroblastoma in February 2016, at age 2. She relapsed in June 2018, Willard said.
She originally received five rounds of chemotherapy at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, near the family’s home in Kingman, Arizona. She then traveled to Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York City for care.
On Jan. 24, when she was no longer responding to treatment, they came to Grand Rapids, Michigan, for treatment at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
On the evening Keyser and Smith visited, Natalie had arrived at the hospital that morning for five days of inpatient chemotherapy.
While they played, a nurse administered her first treatment.
But Natalie had other things to think about—helping Keyser change the clothes on her dolls, watching Smith as he put a Play-Doh crown on his head, handing out her “business cards,” offering Keyser and Smith leftover chocolate hearts from Valentine’s Day, showing them her makeup and brushes and passing out stickers.
“You are the most prepared patient I have ever seen,” Keyser said.
As their time with Natalie drew to a close, it was time to say goodbye.
“Thanks for playing with us,” Keyser said.
Every Monday night is different for Keyser and Smith. Sometimes they spend their time with patients and other times they organize and clean toys in the playroom.
They play with toddlers and older children, but they also snuggle with babies. Sometimes, they offer parents a much-needed break to go eat or take a walk.
More than 200 volunteers serve in the Child Life department.
“Volunteers are so important to us,” said Becky Hibma, a Child Life specialist with Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. “(They) are an extension of our team. They are the reason we are able to see as many kids as we do and provide the resources that we do.”
After visiting Natalie, Keyser and Smith join in a game of Mario Kart in the playroom with the mother and sibling of a patient. They wind up the evening building dinosaur puzzles with 4-year-old Benjamin Howe.
Smith, who works for Spectrum Health as a director of information services, started volunteering with his wife as a date night.
“There are nights where you walk away and you’re just devastated. Your heart goes out to them,” Smith says. “If you can just for a little bit make a child forget where they are, it’s so rewarding.”
Their role is unique in the hospital setting, different from doctors, nurses and even the Child Life specialists they work with.
“We have an unfair advantage because we’re just there to play,” Smith says.
That’s where Keyser shines, Smith says.
“This guy is amazing in his ability to read the kids,” Smith says. “That’s what’s just really fun to see in him.”
Keyser admits he has a soft spot for children. He and his wife, Megan, are expecting their first child in June.
“For me, it is an opportunity to give back and help people who are in a difficult situation,” Keyser says. “Anything you can do makes it a little better.”