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Pediatric oncologist learned value of teamwork at Georgia College

By Brittany Johnson

When high school senior Amy Amundson began considering offers from college basketball recruiters for the next year, her biggest deciding factor actually had little to do with basketball.

For Amundson, now Dr. Amy Smith, the biggest concern was receiving a comprehensive, well-rounded college experience, one that allowed her to focus on her academics and love for the piano, as well as her athletics pursuits.

Although she had an aunt and uncle who lived in Milledgeville, Smith worried about moving to a small town and, as a result, never really considered Georgia College & State University as an option for her undergraduate experience. However, when head basketball coach John Carrick secretly arranged for her to audition for the music school on her first visit to campus, she immediately knew she belonged there.

“It felt kind of personal and they were very engaged, and I appreciated the fact that I could do both things that I loved,” said Smith, who is the Peach Belt Conference’s female representative on Division II’s 40th Anniversary Tribute Team being honored this year.

Growing up as the oldest child of two schoolteachers in Miami, Smith was surrounded by both academics and athletics at an early age. Although her father was a football and baseball coach, he taught his daughter how to shoot layups when she was in the third grade. Years later, she was able to continue her playing career at the collegiate level, thanks to her passion for the game and ability on the court.

Smith donned a Bobcats jersey for four years at Georgia College, including the 1990-91 season when the school transitioned from the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) to the NCAA Division II’s fledgling Peach Belt Conference. For Smith, the value of being a member of the team was immeasurable.

“I’ve always loved team sports,” she said. “That experience in college was spectacular for me. I was really not a great player, but I loved being part of the team. That was just kind of my thing and it kept me engaged and driven and it was fun to be part of that.”

Although Smith treasured her time on the court, she knew the chances of playing at the professional level were slim. So when the professor of her freshman anatomy and physiology class pulled her aside and encouraged her to consider medical school as an option, she listened. Smith had always assumed she would follow in the footsteps of her parents and become a teacher and coach, but the challenge of medical school seemed appealing and she decided to pursue it.

In 1992, Smith graduated from Georgia College with a pre-med degree in biology and a minor in music. She decided to stay in-state for med school and received her medical degree from the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. She finished her pediatric residency at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver. Board certified by the American Board of Pediatrics, Smith also completed a fellowship in pediatric hematology/oncology and bone marrow transplantation with special training in pediatric neuro-oncology.

Upon completion of her fellowship, Smith returned to Florida, where she worked as an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Florida with a joint appointment to the Department of Neurosurgery, McKnight Brain Institute.

While working in Gainesville, Smith again found herself working as part of a team, albeit one with a much larger mission. Eventually, Smith and her peers were recruited as a team to work at the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando. Now, she serves as a member of the Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Specialty Section at MD Anderson Cancer Center Orlando.

Although she has traded in her sneakers for scrubs, and the opposition has transitioned from girls on the court to cancer, Smith still recognizes the importance of being on a cohesive team.

“My passion in life is taking care of children with brain and spinal cord tumors,” she said. “But even more than that, it is building a major center of excellence, and the way to do that is through teambuilding and teamwork. That’s what I’m most proud of, because we all love and care about one another. We care passionately about what we do.”

For all of her work with childhood cancer patients, Smith has received a number of awards, including the Best Doctors in America honor in 2009 and 2010 and the 2010 Royal Lady Award from the Ocala Royal Dames for Cancer Research.

Smith, who also met her husband of 17 years as a freshman at Georgia College, credits her time as a DII student-athlete for holding her accountable to her studies, providing her with unique opportunities, and teaching her the value of time management and teamwork.

“I’m so thankful I played college sports,” she said. “It right away gets you into a good crowd of people. It gives you some parenting in a sense. So many people go away to college and get completely lost and out of control. This gives you kind of an immediate family and some accountability, and yet lots and lots of fun.”

In addition to her duties at the hospital, Smith also spends plenty of time with who she says is her “proudest accomplishment,” her 8-year-old son, Lucas.

These days, Smith, who says she still has long-lasting friendships from her days at Georgia College, maintains that Division II provides the perfect balance between athletics and academics, giving student-athletes a well-rounded, enriching college experience.

“Personally, I think Division II is spectacular because you play at a pretty high level, so it’s exciting,” she said. “You’re getting to do what you love, but I do think there is a significant promotion of your education and of the development of you as a whole person. The truth is, most of us aren’t going to go on and be professional athletes. But you’re able to enjoy that whole experience at a high level of play and be developed as a human being in many other areas.