REDDY: Children in hospital give strength to the strong

Frank Reddy

Frank Reddy

Take a right off Browns Bridge Road. It's the sixth house on the left, the yard with the English Ivy. Inside the living room, buried in a dark wooden cabinet, there's an old photo album. Its plastic pages sandwiched together by a cardboard cover with colorful diagonal stripes.

Among the photos -- all crowded, caddy cornered and coming unglued -- there's a picture of a wheelchair-bound boy in a hospital gown with brown hair and a Dennis-the-Menace cowlick. His eyes squint, barely open, and he wears a frown.

Posing with the 10-year-old boy is a large man in a black Atlanta Falcons jersey: the number 58 emblazoned across the front. He's got an arm draped over the kid's shoulder, smiling, trying to get the boy to do the same.

You've likely guessed by now that the boy was me. It was October 1991 at Egleston Hospital in Atlanta. It was a time of poor health and pain. I remember the metallic taste of liquid antibiotics and the needle's sting in my arm.

While covering a story last week for Gwinnett Daily Post the recollections came rushing back. As I stepped into Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, shoes squeaking down the halls, a camera in one hand, a reporter's notebook in the other, the acrid scent of rubbing alcohol stopped me.

It took me back to my state of health when the old photo was snapped: Suffering from something called photophobia (light sensitivity related to the nervous system) and hospitalized following ankle surgery to remove a bone infection.

My ailments were unusual but benign, unlike those of the kids surrounding me at Egleston.

I remember looking around the room, glancing at these kids who'd lost their hair undergoing chemo. The children whose bones and backs were bent and twisted, many of whom moved about with a wheeled machine pumping IV fluids.

I saw children who faced similar situations arriving last Wednesday at Children's Healthcare.

Former UGA athletes David Greene and Jon and Matt Stinchcomb occupied a hospital room spending time with the kids: tossing footballs, coloring, playing board games, laughing and signing autographs.

While interviewing Greene, he made a remark along the lines that being there was more rewarding than he could explain, and when he said it you knew he meant it.

Greene spent time last Wednesday with a 7-year-old kid named Trevor. The boy was all smiles and adoration. I'd seen that look before on children's faces.

As an ill-tempered 10-year-old I couldn't quite grasp what compelled these sick children to smile, even as a trio of Atlanta Falcons crossed through the room, high-fiving, fist bumping.

It made no sense that these children -- some of whom would die in coming months or years -- seemed so oblivious to their surroundings, to their afflictions.

I didn't understand it then. But I think I do now: it was human strength. Their source of happiness reached beyond the confines of their current situations. The ability of these children to transcend the storm of malfunctioning cells and misfiring neurons was a mark of character, and their smiles were badges of vitality.

That's why Greene and the Stinchcomb brothers came out to Children's Healthcare last week. They were fascinated by that same awe-inspiring force that urged three Atlanta Falcons to enter Egleston Hospital more than 20 years ago.

There's something powerful about a child -- so innocent and accepting of a world that's caused nothing but pain -- lighting up the room with an unabashed grin, cracking jokes with pro athletes.

I can only hope that in 1991, moments after the camera flashed, I finally gave that Atlanta Falcons linebacker a smile.

Frank Reddy is a staff writer for Gwinnett Daily Post. Email him at frank.reddy@gwinnettdailypost.com.