How Marcus Smart’s Support for Cancer Patients Transformed Children’s Hospitals

From a story on theathletic.com by Jared Weiss headlined “How Marcus Smart’s support for cancer patients transformed children’s hospitals”:

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.”

Katie Devine, the associate director of donor relations for Boston Children’s Hospital Trust, gets emotional telling the story of the day Smart walked into the room of a young girl undergoing chemotherapy and was immediately pelted by a Nerf gun. Smart took on the foam friendly-fire and asked, “Well, where’s mine?” He was instead gifted a bracelet and some pink extensions the patient was given after her hair loss, which he wore proudly.

Years later, when Smart was being honored by the Celtics as their community hero, he invited the patient to the gala as his guest. As he stepped on stage donning a bracelet she had given him, he pulled those same hair extensions from his pocket.

“It was just such a poignant reminder of the impact he can have on people, but also the impact that these patients have on their special visitors,” said Devine.

When visiting a patient’s room, Smart gets deja vu. The beeping equipment, IV drips, the linoleum floors, it’s all familiar. He remembers how it felt when his family was in the same situation, so he tries to be the shoulder he needed to lean on when he was younger.

“When you go to the hospital, you see how the treatments are being done and how it’s making the patients feel, how it’s affecting not only their lives, but their families and their loved ones’ lives,” Smart said. “That really clicked, because I’ve been in that situation and I understand what it feels like to be just looking and wishing for anything.”

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.”

Kenny Boren, his longtime confidant who helps manage his foundation YounGameChanger (YGC), sometimes doesn’t find out about Smart’s trips until weeks later. Boren and YGC director Bill Wilk have had to convince Smart to do even the most basic promotion for the foundation and his Smart Carts program.

“If no one knows what’s going on, then no one knows what’s going on,” Boren said.

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.”

But as much as his visits help, he is only there for a few hours. The thing Smart noticed the most was the monotony and boredom the children faced confined to their rooms. He wanted to find a way to keep them occupied and entertained daily.

That’s how the Smart Carts were born.

Created through his foundation, the Smart Cart is a mobile charging station loaded with tablets and video game consoles designed to become entertainment hubs for hospitals. The foundation partnered with Lenovo and Walmart to supply it with tablets and Nintendo Switches, donating 13 carts to nine hospitals since 2016.

“That is who Marcus is. He is the most genuine, kind and passionate person,” said Devine. “I think once you get to know him, that is who he is.”

As the coordinator of the family resource center at Connecticut Children’s Hospital, Evan McOmber had a problem.

He was staring at a pile of iPads that had just arrived from a generous donor, trying to figure out what to do with all of them. As the person tasked with ensuring patients have the support they need to make their treatment bearable, his task was to take this sizable gift and put it into action.

He was excited about the possibilities it unlocked, but there was one issue: How could he keep track of all of them on a 187-bed campus?

“We got the iPads and that was great, but housing them and delivering them was a logistical nightmare,” said McOmber. “If we didn’t have the resources to facilitate the equipment and get it to the patients, we wouldn’t have anything.”

A few weeks after the iPads came in, Smart’s foundation reached out.

“That’s when we got word they were going to donate this Smart Cart for the kids in the hospital and it was just perfect timing,” McOmber said. “All those stars aligned. It’s such a simple, silly thing that maybe the hospital can use this and it absolutely could not have been better for us.”

The pandemic shifted all of their in-person activities to the virtual world, as they tried to find ways to keep the kids upbeat and engaged at a time when they had no choice but to be isolated. But the silver lining was that it forced them to innovate their programming, realizing their patients could feel even more present in the outside world by seeing more of it from the comfort of their hospital beds.

McOmber asked himself why they weren’t doing virtual tours of places the kids couldn’t visit? Rather than wait for a special guest to visit for a brief period, why not do it over Zoom, more frequently, with a wide variety of speakers? He wanted to give patients a chance to start building for a future in the outside world.

“Connecting these kids with leaders in their field gives them ideas for career opportunities that we wouldn’t have done normally,” said McOmber. “It’s like, why weren’t we doing this? It’s so obvious, but all you (thought) about (was) what can we bring the kids, instead of bringing them virtually to a place outside the bounds of the hospital.”

He noticed a shift in the way patients perceived their hospital stay, which for many patients is long-term. Some have spent their whole lives within those walls. They didn’t know what it was like to be outside of them until the virtual tours started.

When McOmber would check in with patients, he would ask how things were going and presume the conversation was about their treatment.

“But they’re like, ‘They did this awesome program at the aquarium and we learned about penguins!’” he said. “It’s like, yeah, that’s fine, but how’s your leg? It completely changes their viewpoint of their stay in the hospital.”

For so long, the patients had to visit the family resource center to enjoy their programming and events. But that left out the children who couldn’t leave their rooms — because of limited mobility or because they were undergoing advanced treatment.

“On Zoom, you can see the kids participating with their own little lightsabers in their beds, hitting their mom or whatever and it was just incredible,” McOmber said.

This was what Smart envisioned for his Smart Carts program, ensuring children confined to hospital beds could still have a social life and some semblance of a childhood.

While his carts help in the emotional component of the treatment process, he also wanted to contribute to the medical side. He partnered with Be the Match and Aflac to raise awareness for the national bone marrow registry that provides the marrow necessary to fight the kinds of blood cancers his brother and mother had.

“Life is only through the transplant,” Smart said. “The only way to that is if they have donors, and unfortunately, especially in African-American communities, the match percentage for donors is 29 percent, compared to our counterparts of the White community, where it’s 79 percent. And we just think that everybody deserves a chance to have an opportunity for a cure.”

As part of his awareness campaign, Smart is holding a little robotic duck he has named Professor Quackers, one of Aflac’s “My Special Ducks” distributed to blood cancer and sickle cell disease patients in hospitals around the country. He saw the duck as a fit with his Smart Carts program, trying to relieve the isolation of being in the hospital.

“It’s to help kids understand that, I know you’re stuck in this room and you don’t feel like you can get out, but here’s a way to feel like a kid and a part of society again,” Smart said. “Sometimes it’s hard for them to tell you how they feel, and this duck does that for them. And it’s a cute duck, a cute cuddle buddy.”

While the comfort and distraction of a tablet or toy go a long way, sometimes just connecting with loved ones posed the biggest challenge. That was a problem Franciscan Children’s Hospital was trying to solve before the facility — located down the street from the Celtics’ practice facility in Boston’s Brighton neighborhood — received its pair of Smart Carts during last season’s playoffs.

Franciscan Children’s is the only post-acute care pediatric hospital in New England, providing care for patients who are in recovery from significant medical events or are managing long-term conditions. As recently as the COVID surge, patients were often under enhanced protocols that limited visitor access. Families wanted to Zoom with their kids, many of whom didn’t have phones or computers. The hospital was struggling to make arrangements for parents to connect with their kids.

They only had a few iPads, which would often get lost around the hospital or, in some cases, accidentally end up at another facility when a child was transferred for treatments.

“Scheduling was really hard,” said Franciscan Children’s child life specialist Olivia Bowie, who helps patients deal with the challenges of staying in the hospital. “We’d have to say, ‘Sorry, this Zoom can only be five minutes long.’”

Then they received their Smart Carts, which gave them enough tablets to reduce the significant time constraints, and a locked storage unit to ensure they could keep track of every device.

“Now we can have four different Zoom calls going at the same time because we can have the technology to make it happen, which is greatly appreciated,” said Bowie. “It’s something we can kind of advertise now that we’ll do for pretty much any patient whenever the family wants, so that they can have that connection with their kid while they’re here. It’s so hard and they feel so bad when they can’t be here because they have work or they have their own lives and can’t be here every day.”

That service was vital for Demara Chesley, whose infant son Kayden Hibbert was admitted to the hospital in April in preparation for lung surgery which would allow him to breathe on his own. They live in Fort Kent, Maine, on the northern border with Canada and a seven-hour drive to Boston.

So as Chesley tried to shift her life to Boston while her 14-month-old was set to spend the rest of the year in the hospital, Zoom was the only way she could see her baby.

“He’s been in the hospital his entire life. Those Zoom calls were so helpful because it was really hard to be away from him for that long,” said Chesley. “There’s so many amazing people here, so it made things a lot easier to be able to see him and see everybody’s faces.”

Those Zoom calls also became training sessions for Chesley, as clinicians demonstrated how to change her son’s breathing tube and manage settings on his ventilator. The hospital requires parents to do a 48-hour stay at the hospital to stress test their care regimen, which Chesley is preparing for at the end of the year.

“Even just knowing medication and how to convert them so you’re not giving too much or too little, because when we go home, we’ll be doing them all on our own.” she said. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s definitely worth it.”

Phillip Forte needed a hug.

Since meeting Smart on their third-grade AAU team, they had become family. Smart’s mother, Ms. Camellia, as he still calls her, was a second mother to him.

When Forte enrolled in Marcus High in Flower Mound, north of Dallas, Camellia moved the Smart family across the city from South Dallas so her son could join his best friend. She was at every one of their games, even though she was going into the hospital for dialysis three times a week as kidney stones left her with just one kidney. She would carpool with Forte’s parents to games at Oklahoma State when Smart and Forte joined the program together.

“She never missed one of Marcus’ games. She would go do it and never let anybody know that it bothered her,” Forte said. “She was one of the strongest ladies I’ve ever been around. She always had a great personality, a smile on her face, and could light up a room. That’s where Marcus gets his personality from, his mom.”

But when she was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer in April 2018, Forte started preparing himself for the fight coming to an end. When he got word five months later that it was time to say goodbye, he flew to Dallas and met Smart by his mother’s bedside.

“He was the one that was actually consoling me,” said Forte. “She was like a second mom to me. We were very, very close and I’m the one crying in the hospital when I first see her and he’s the one being the strong dude like it’s supposed to be.”

Camellia passed away just over a week before Celtics training camp began, but Smart still showed up and eventually won the starting job as the season went on and his career took the next step. Though he looked triumphant to fans at work, he was struggling in private as his aunt, uncle and his girlfriend’s father all passed from cancer over the next few years.

“It was just a domino effect, everybody just started dropping,” Smart said. “I spent a lot of time just home alone, doing a lot of thinking. I would go to the gym late at night and do things like that to try to keep my mind off everything. That’s really it. It’s different for everybody. What might help you cope might not help somebody else, but you gotta find it. Once you find it, hold on to it and really let that grow.”

It brought him back to the story of how his brother, Todd, checked himself out of the hospital after doctors found a tumor behind his eye and suited up for his high school’s game that same night. Todd proceeded to drop 30 points with his left eye shut, earning the nickname, “The Comeback Kid.”

“Anytime I feel like I can’t do this or I don’t want to do this, I think back to that moment,” Smart said. “Who am I to sit at home and say I don’t want to do this today because I don’t feel like doing it? When my brother, who had a tumor behind his left eye, checked out of the hospital, even though his body was degrading and he was going through excruciating pain. He didn’t allow him to keep him from getting up and doing what he loved to do. So every day, I have to continue to fight because he didn’t have that opportunity.”

It’s the perspective that’s reinforced every time he sits down with a sick child. Smart was able to remain composed the day he consoled Forte because he’s had so much practice over the years. When Todd was in the hospital throughout his childhood, Smart was the young kid struggling to cope. But years of visiting Children’s Hospital taught him how to bring a sense of calm.

So when he visits a young cancer patient, he does it with empathy, and not out of sympathy. He knows they don’t want to be reminded of their predicament, that they just want to think about anything else for a few minutes. So he comes into the room and asks them about their passions and their goals for the future.

“I like to talk about things that make them happy,” Smart said. “I don’t want to talk about things that are going to bring them down even more. So give them a hug. They know you’re sorry, they know you can only imagine. Lighten up their day. Talk to them more about them to make them feel more involved in the world than just stuck in a hospital.”

Whether he’s in the room himself or one of his carts is there in his stead, Smart wants young cancer patients to feel like there is a life beyond their treatment. Though his brother was diagnosed at age 15, he went on to live another 18 years.

He was faced with the greatest challenge and stepped up to the fight. That legacy carries on in Marcus, who was born 17 years after Todd. Smart knows when he meets a patient that it’s the highlight of their week. But it’s really him who is left inspired.

“We don’t realize how strong people really are until times of need and you have to show it,” Smart said. “I learned a lot from my mom and my brother and the kids at the Children’s Hospital. And every time I work with somebody who is going through something, I’m blessed to be able to know their experience.”

Jared Weiss is a staff writer covering the Boston Celtics and host of the Grant and Tacko Show & Daily Ding podcast for The Athletic. He has covered the Celtics since 2011, co-founding CLNS Media Network while in college before covering the team for SB Nation’s CelticsBlog and USA Today.

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