It’s not every day you see a horse meandering through a city park.

But that’s exactly what happened when Camp Casey pulled into town to pay a visit to a couple of patients from Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital on a recent sunny afternoon.

Camp Casey’s pandemic-inspired Horsey House Call program surprises sick kids with a full-size horse and an afternoon of fun, camp-related activities, including horseback riding and arts and crafts.

‘We are lucky’

Michael Mathis and Carrie Johnson have two boys with sickle cell anemia: Matthias, who is 2 years old, and his older brother, Michael, who is six. The boys take medication every day and will need ongoing support and care from the hospital for the rest of their lives.

Matthew Pridgeon, MD, a pediatric hematologist and oncologist, is the family’s physician.

Michael and Matthias have hemoglobin SC, which generally is a milder version of sickle cell disease. They will be at risk for lifelong medical issues.

“Overall, both of the boys have done really well,” Dr. Pridgeon said.  “I’ll follow them through childhood and into young adulthood. We are lucky to have a multidisciplinary team to help coordinate access to care and even advocate with our local schools.”

The boys struggle with temperature extremes that can trigger pain, so making sure things aren’t too hot or too cold is important. Staying properly hydrated helps too, so they come packing water bottles most days. Michael and Matthias visit the hospital for checkups and blood work every six months.

“We have been up all night massaging their legs and sore spots on the boys,” their dad, Mike, said. “Sometimes the pain gets so serious that they need morphine. I remember one time where I massaged until my hands completely cramped right up.”

The boys’ mother, Carrie, said they have their hard days, but she knows the boys are getting the best care possible.

“One thing is for sure, when we go into the hospital with issues, we know we are in good hands,” Carrie said. “The kids are always the main focus, but the team at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital checks in on us as parents, too. It means a lot.”

It’s been about a year since a major issue or the need for a hospital stay for the boys, so Mike and Carrie are feeling pretty good right now.

Horsing around

Michael and Matthias jumped out of the car when they saw Lacey the horse.

Ranch hand Andrijka Holton walked at Lacey’s side.

“It is pure magic to see kids light up,” she said. “How often do you see a horse in downtown Grand Rapids?”

She and Karen Dempsey, a PATH-certified equine therapist, would run the program for the afternoon and teach the Mathis boys a little bit about caring for a horse and how to ride.

They first learned how to brush the horse and care for her, and then took the reins.

Michael saddled up first, in true big brother fashion, and Matthias watched and worked on arts and craft projects to pass the time while waiting his turn.

“You see me, Dad? I’m riding the horse!” Michael exclaimed as he passed by his family from up high.

Matthias wasn’t as certain about it at first but warmed up to the idea after just a few minutes of settling into the saddle.

Carrie has been working third shift at the local GM plant, and said this afternoon was just what her family needed to round out the summer.

“This has been such a fun day for the kids,” Carrie said. “I’m so thankful that Camp Casey was able to set this up for our family. It means so much.”