NBA star has low-key, savvy, and compassionate way to help sick kids

celticsmarcussmart-240x300College and pro athletes create feel-good moments in almost rote fashion these days with well-intentioned sojourns to local hospitals to see sick kids. These brief visits are an image-enhancing dream for publicists, teams, and the folks who drop big money on sports in hopes that fans’ adoration of jocks translates into major profits.

For at least one pro basketball player, though, the power of celebrity provides a quiet, powerful, and poignant way to support pediatric cancer patients in ways that he appreciates in a visceral fashion borne of painful personal experience. The Athletic, the New York Times owned sports-focused site, has posted a moving portrait of Boston Celtics star Marcus Smart and his commitment to comforting kids, reporting this:

Marcus Smart has spent far too much of his life sitting beside a hospital bed. He endured years watching his brother Todd battle leukemia when Marcus was in elementary school in Texas. He held his mother, Camellia, as she faced bone marrow cancer a few years ago. He is all too familiar with the last place most people want to be. And yet, he keeps going back. When he arrived in Boston as a rookie in 2014, he began making hospital visits quietly — no cameras, no media, no tweets. Smart wanted to spend time with kids who needed a friend and a distraction. Doctors and nurses would introduce him to those who had chemotherapy treatments that morning. They would explain to him how rough the past few days had been for their patients, hoping he could make their day a little easier. ‘Then I get there and everything that the doctor just told me goes out the window,’ Smart said as a smile finally began to peek through. ‘The kid has the biggest smile on her face. They’re getting up, they’re talking, they’re getting out of bed and that right there is what it’s all about for me.’”

Smart often catches off-guard the public relations machine that surrounds his legendary team and hospitals in the Boston area with his unannounced visits and the depth of his commitment to assisting sick kids and their families. He declines photo and video opportunities and says little about his private time spent in places that most elite athletes would dread, the Athletic reported:

“Smart goes about things quietly, spending one-on-one time with the patients he visits so he can establish a real connection. After his mother died in September 2018, he hosted a private dinner for families staying in Boston Children’s Hospital’s patient housing and sat down with each and every person there. ‘I think it’s so personal to him and it’s a very emotional time for him, going through flashbacks and reliving some of that as he sees kids with their parents,’ longtime friend Phillip Forte said. ‘He knows exactly what they’re going through and the conversations they’re having with those doctors. He understands how personal it is to those families and he doesn’t want it to seem like he’s doing it for attention.’”

His view of his volunteerism, as reported in the news feature, is worth noting:

“Smart explained that he was taught that if he is going to genuinely do something for somebody, he shouldn’t expect anything back. ‘As long as you can change one person’s life, put a smile on one person, then I’ve done my job,’ he said. ‘Some of them go through it alone and it’s just really tough and people don’t really understand that. We get so caught up in our own lives that we forget that there’s somebody out there fighting and battling something way worse than what we’re going through here. And maybe just saying hello is all they needed to keep going.’”

The onetime Oklahoma State guard, of course, is well-rewarded for his on-court prowess and this powers an eponymous foundation that also provides, the Athletic reported, an important reminder to affluent donors about the wise use of their financial gifts.

Smart, the sports site says, took the time to understand the people he wanted to assist, their needs, and how he could best help. He determined that pediatric patients dread being cooped up in a hospital room, kept away from friends and family, and left for long hours with little to do. Sure, many can read or watch TV. But for kids’ active, expanding minds that was not enough. The loneliness and boredom can be huge for really sick youngsters, many of whom have spent much of their growing up time in institutions far from home.

As a younger athlete, Smart realized that youngsters’ craving for connection could be boosted with digital devices — tablets, games, and more. Many youngsters can’t afford the gear and it proved to be challenging for hospitals, even pediatric care facilities, to afford, track, manage, and secure. So, Smart and his foundation, working with others, not only fund purchases of digital gear for pediatric patients. They also have worked with vendors to build “Smart carts.” These rolling stations help hospital staff not only share entertainment sources for youngsters but also to lock up pricey equipment that too easily disappears.

By the way, Smart and health staffers have recognized that digital devices can do far more than give kids hours of mindless video game play. The devices allow youngsters to see and experience places they otherwise could not in educational fashion. They have become an invaluable way, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, for youngsters to use video conferencing to bolster their spirits by chatting with their moms, dads, brothers, sisters, and friends — all of whom may be separated by great distances when youngsters travel to receive elite, specialized care at regional pediatric hospitals.

In my practice, I not only see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the  clear benefits they can reap by staying healthy and far away from the U.S. health care system. It is, according to research conducted in pre-coronavirus pandemic times, fraught with medical errorpreventable hospital acquired illnesses and deaths, and misdiagnoses.

Still, when we and our loved ones fall ill or become injured, it is great to know that many hospitals provide fine care, with their deeply committed medical personnel providing excellent, often valiant treatment. It is a distressing reality that the leaders of so many institutions insist on growing hospitals with big shiny buildings and fancy, expensive equipment that demands a relentless squeeze on donors, especially the tapping of patients and their loved ones during illness and injury.

We’re entering into a season when charity and goodwill are supposed to abound. So, yes, health care is costly and too many people need all kinds of philanthropic help to get and keep the medical services they need. We certainly cannot allow extremists to threaten pediatric hospitals, disrupting the amazing and necessary care these institutions provide to sick and injured kids. Those of us who can should consider donations of all kinds — not just seasonal but all year long.

And, of course, as Marcus Smart reminds us: There is huge power in one person taking time to visit, chat, and cheer up the sick or injured. They may be in hospitals. They may be recuperating at home. Their caregivers may be desperate for a break or for company, too.

Photo credit: Marcus Smart in Boston Celtics play by Eric Drost @Flickr @Creative Commons
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