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When calls went out for volunteers for track student-athletes and coaches to visit Children’s Hospital, nobody had to ask Tim Creamer twice. He’s lived the experience from the other side and is up front about giving back.
The emotional odyssey began for Creamer, Seton Hill’s track and field coach, when his son Timmy was diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma. In this case, the tumor was in Timmy’s intestine, requiring the full array of cancer treatments. That was a little more than four years ago, and Timmy’s is now approaching the five-year threshold to be considered cancer-free.
“Besides a few scars from surgeries,” Creamer said, “he’s a normal 11-year-old who loves soccer, baseball and basketball,” Creamer said.
But Creamer has never forgotten the experience and how much strength was drawn from random visits while Timmy was hospitalized.
“For my son, it was like ‘I’m not sick for 5 minutes. I’m not getting poked by a needle or getting a test done. These people are just here to hang out for a few minutes and to have a good day,’ ” he said.
So it was for about 20 Division II student-athletes and coaches who visited Birmingham’s Children’s Hospital on Wednesday. They were just hanging out and trying to brighten a few lives.
Creamer toured the hospital with Seton Hill long jumper Aron Kurzinski (Seton Hill jumper Calsie Boyd toured with another group). Their route took them through the hospital’s pulmonary unit. In several cases, anybody visiting a room had to don a disposable hospital gown, put on surgical gloves and a surgical mask. Everything was discarded after each visit, with a post-visit application of hand sanitizer required every time.
In other words, these children are seriously ill.
But the experience, for Creamer’s group and others, felt upbeat. The children were quite young in most cases and maybe a little puzzled by the hoopla, but their parents quickly warmed to conversation. Creamer knows the feeling.
“It helps change the monotony of being in that room, for someone to come in and visit, to talk to someone else other than a spouse or a parent or the doctors or the nurses,” he said. “It really helps you relax a little.”
The Creamer family’s experience four years ago was a little different than most. For some of the time Timmy was hospitalized, the patient in the room next door was the son of former Pittsburgh Steeler Aaron Smith. One time, Creamer said Smith stuck his head in the room, asked who Timmy’s favorite Steelers were and returned the next day with a football full of personalized autographs.
And then there was the other visitor. Steeler Troy Polamalu, then at the height of his fame, showed up about once a week for the entire three months Timmy was hospitalized. “He would come up randomly, hang out with them for as long as he wanted, unannounced,” Creamer said. “No media, no nothing. He would just come in there.”
There was no Troy Polamalu among Wednesday’s visitors, but Kurzinski was something of a secret weapon himself. After all, nobody else brought a guitar.
“My roommate’s girlfriend actually is a musical therapist,” he said, “and she goes to the hospital and plays for people. That’s kind of what put the idea in my head about bringing my guitar down here and playing for the kids.”
So what did they want to hear?
“They asked for ‘Sweet Home, Alabama,’ ”he said. “I should have known to practice that one.”
He worked his way through it, though, and even went beyond the call by playing one set while wearing the surgical gloves.
That no doubt will be a fond memory for some child or parent years from now. Though the bad moments abound when any child is seriously ill, Creamer said it is possible to assemble enough good moments to make the experience a positive one.
“You keep in the back of your mind that everything happens for a reason, and whatever that reason is, hopefully my son or daughter will get better,” he said. “It was just unbelievable the experience we went through, positive and negative, and it kind of shaped who I am now as a coach.”