Tommy Smart is a versatile fella.
As a volunteer at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, he makes easy conversation with kids half his age, in their language.
He bounces from playing a game of Clue, assembling intricate pieces of a Lego device with a leukemia patient, to deftly working the controls during an Xbox video game with a stem cell transplant patient.
And, in between, he pops in on patients to see if they need anything.
All in three hours. And all after a week serving as a camp counselor at Camp Mak-A-Dream in Montana. He helped transport children to this place where campfires proved more common than chemotherapy, and trout counts more important than T cell counts.
“You develop a stronger and deeper bond with the kids after a week of hanging out with them at camp,” said Smart, 25, who is entering his eighth year as a volunteer with Child Life Services.
They mined for sapphires, swam, rode horses and pushed the limits on a high ropes course. Kids in this magical place are not patients; they are campers.
“We sat and talked about their accomplishments and their exciting moments,” Smart said. “We do not bring up their illnesses. A lot of them think people are too gentle to them. They still like to do activities.”
Smart’s passion for the medical environment flared during his own several-day hospital stay with a lung infection as a high school senior.
“I really liked what the nurses did,” the 2008 Jenison High School graduate said. “I wanted to learn more about nursing.”
Staff encouraged him to volunteer.
“They set me up with doing Child Life and I haven’t stopped yet,” Smart said. “I’ve done everything from spending time with patients so Mom and Dad can step out for half an hour, to rocking and holding babies, to playing board games or letting little girls paint my nails.”
Smart’s job isn’t to lament over childrens’ conditions or ask how they’re feeling. They get enough of that, he says. Sometimes they just need to do what they do best—be a kid. And do kid things. And forget the hand that life has dealt them.
If only for a brief time, illness isn’t the captain of their ship. Fun is.
On a recent Monday, Smart visited the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital infusion room and played Clue with Hannah Steenhagan, 12, Brendon Engle, 16, and Malik Kirkwood, 19.
Hannah, sporting a red and gray bandana, jeans and flip-flops, won the first game—Plumb, candlestick, dining room—while waiting for her blood transfusion.
As the game rolled on, nurse Amy Arnsman stopped by to check Brendon’s blood pressure and temperature.
Brendon, who is battling a blood disorder, jokingly told her that he’s serving as Smart’s conscience.
After Smart congratulated Hannah on her victory, he moved on to visit the room of Madison Pflug, a leukemia patient recovering from a recent bone marrow transplant.
Wearing a mask, gown and gloves to prevent spreading germs, Smart sat down next to Maddie’s bed and the thick trail of IV lines running into her small body. He began helping her assemble an intricate Legos’ Star Wars snowspeeder.
They chatted about their favorite Star Wars scenes as Smart fingered through the hundreds of tiny parts strewn on the 11-year-old’s tray table.
In a sense, Smart’s actions exemplified his role with children. He helps them pick out the important pieces in life, amid an overwhelming array of medical procedures, tests, pokes and prods.
While looking for a “brown stick” piece for the Star Wars craft, Smart asked if he should just go get a stick from a tree.
“That probably wouldn’t be allowed in here,” Maddie said matter-of-factly.
As they continued assembly, they chatted about their camp experiences at Camp Catch-A-Rainbow in Jackson, Mich.
“I loved the zip line,” Maddie shared. “I love heights.”
Smart said he loves everything about his volunteer work.
“I always loved to help people and I love working with kids so this is two of my biggest passions at one time,” he said. “I get huge enjoyment from this, more than I can put into words.”
He complimented Maddie on her jungle-theme hospital room. She excitedly told him how she got to pick out all brand new things from the store because they are germ-free.
“And I get to keep them at the end,” she said with a grin.
Smart asked if she wants to be a vet. Or a zoo keeper.
She wants to be a zoo keeper.
“I love seeing animals when they’re happy and playing around, not just doing nurse work,” she tells him. “I want to see them at their best moments.”
Kind of like Smart. And what he brings out in the children with whom he spends time.