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From Donor to Dad

Son is Now Playing with Toys Like Those He Helped Give as a Teenager

When he first heard about Shriners Hospitals for Children — St. Louis, Tom was toiling as an undersized 6-foot-tall center on the Odin (Illinois) High School basketball team trying – mostly unsuccessfully – to guard the other teams’ behemoth big men.

His coach organized a fundraiser to purchase toys for the hospital’s child life department. The coach’s wife took the money raised from selling discount cards, T-shirts and baked goods, bought toys and loaded the boys up on a bus to come to the hospital to meet the kids.

“When you’re in high school, you think of it as a free day out of school,” said Tom, who graduated in 2007. “Now, I realize that it really means so much more.”

Tom’s son Hunter, 5, had surgery Sept. 21 to address scoliosis that he and his wife, Kelsie, first noticed when he was an infant. Since that surgery, performed by physician Brian Kelly, M.D., Hunter has been tooling around the hospital in a halo traction device, enjoying the toys in the recreational therapy/child life department, very much like the ones his dad brought with his teammates more than a decade ago.

The recreational therapy/child life staff plays a vital role in helping make the hospital seem less scary to patients by promoting positive coping skills. They use what’s called “medical play” before surgery, complete with a special doll and real medical equipment, to help reduce fears of what is to come. Child life specialists provide distractions during procedures such as blood draws or IV placements. And afterward, there is the playroom to help patients adjust to the hospital and give them an opportunity to, well, just be a kid.

Hunter has become a fixture in the playroom since his surgery. He loves taking on whoever will play him at Jenga and dons his chef persona to make mythical meals in the play kitchen.

“When you’re a teenager, you look and say, ‘Oh, those kids are different,’” Tom said of his visit to the hospital with his basketball team. “Now, I just watch and (the recreational therapists) see no difference. It’s just a kid wanting to play, like any other kid.”

Hunter and his parents have been staying at his bedside at night, and the medical staff is slowly adding weight to his halo device to help straighten his back. The plan is for him to stay at the hospital until Oct. 21, when he will return home to his three siblings and two dogs in Centralia, Illinois. 

Hunter will have more surgeries as he grows to help straighten his spine. Without surgery, the curve would have worsened and started to crush his lungs and then other organs. Tom is grateful for Shriners Hospitals’ intervention.

“The thing that’s most impressive here is how much people care about your kid,” Tom said. “People care. You know they’re going to take great care of your kid.”

Hunter and his dad playing

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