Three years ago, sitting in his hospital bed, Tyler Smith couldn’t take any more.
Falmouth’s Tyler Smith decided to skip the tears and focus on his fight against cancer. (Courtesy the Smith family)
The 10-year-old from Falmouth, the kid with a permanent smile on his face, knew the drill. His friends and loved ones would enter his room. Since he’d lost his hair due to the chemotherapy, he would see the sadness in their eyes. Tyler knew the term ‘leukemia’ instantly frightened everyone. He’d see the tears well up, and you can be certain he knew what was coming next.
‘Everyone who visited would say how sad it was that I was sick, and then they would start to cry,’ Tyler explained. ‘Pretty much everyone was crying.’
Everyone cried, with one notable exception. Tyler Smith chose not to shed tears about his cancer. He decided to beat it.
‘You can’t avoid cancer once you have it,’ he said. ‘It’s either fight or die.’
Tyler decided to make a new rule. If anyone wanted to visit him, there was absolutely no crying.
‘I’m a hockey player, and hockey players don’t cry,’ he said.
* * *
Cancer was not — and still isn’t — a death sentence for Tyler. Now 13, with a full head of bushy brown hair, he actually credits the disease with helping make him a better person. Thanks to the cancer, he says, he is a much more sensitive person.
‘Before this all happened, cancer didn’t mean anything to me,’ he said. ‘Now it means something.’
Tyler was diagnosed in July 2011 with acute lymphoma leukemia (ALL), which is a cancer that starts from white blood cells called lymphocytes in the bone marrow. Just as the word ‘acute’ would indicate, the disease progresses at a rapid speed. ALL will kill if not treated quickly.
In this case, the cancer was not immediately diagnosed. Tyler and his family moved from Cape Cod to North Carolina in March of 2011. Before the Smith family finished unpacking, Tyler was suffering from extreme fevers, ones that reached as high as 105 degrees. His parents took him to the doctor but were told he had a virus or the flu. The fevers disappeared but always returned.
‘When we came back to the Cape for the Fourth of July, Tyler got sick again,’ said Brian Smith, Tyler’s father. ‘We were boating at the time, and he had such little strength that he couldn’t even get out of the boat.’
Tyler’s parents took him to the pediatrician he had seen since the day he was born, but the doctor was hesitant to say anything specific was wrong. Tyler’s mother, Paula, was heartbroken that her son was in pain. She decided to take matters into her own hands.
‘There’s something wrong,’ she said to the doctor. ‘You told me to trust my instincts as mother, and I want you to do blood work to find out what’s not right.’
A mother’s instinct drove the doctor to do more testing. A mother’s instinct kept her son alive.
Four hours later, the results came back.
‘We were told to go immediately to Children’s Hospital,’ Brian said. ‘And that they were expecting us.’
That was on July 25, and the next four days were spent doing all kinds of testing on Tyler. Doctors finally decided to take a bone marrow sample on July 30.
Late that evening, Brian and Paula Smith were in a room with a team of doctors. Their son, they were told, was very sick. He would start chemotherapy the next day.
‘As a parent, to hear your child is sick, it is just so devastating,’ Brian said. ‘Cancer is one of those things that isn’t supposed to happen to your family.’
The Smith family sold their house in North Carolina and returned home. They were about to fight the biggest battle of their lives.
‘It’s something that happens to other people,’ Brian said. ‘You see the Jimmy Fund on television, you donate, and that’s all that cancer meant to us. After learning Tyler was sick, it becomes a very scary, life-changing reality where nothing else matters other than curing your son.’
* * *
Baseball is a walk of life. Everything done in the game is done in life. Everything done in life is done in the game. When Tyler watched Dustin Pedroia play baseball, he instantly connected with the Red Sox second baseman.
Tyler met Dustin Pedroia during a visit to spring training and has maintained a friendship with the Red Sox star. (Courtesy the Smith family)
‘Pedroia’s always willing to get dirty to make a play,’ Tyler said. ‘He’s the one diving and jumping. He’s always been my favorite player.’
Smith flew to Fort Myers, Florida, during spring training with a group from the Jimmy Fund. The yearly trip is funded by proceeds from the annual Tame the Tigers golf tournament, organized by WEEI morning host John Dennis.
‘You understand these kids are going through a tough time,’ Pedroia said. ‘All you want to do is bring them any kind of happiness and joy.’
Tyler knew this was his chance to meet — and perhaps form a friendship — with Pedroia.
‘You’d never think you could meet your favorite baseball player and be friends with him,’ Tyler said. ‘Meeting him was amazing.’
Pedroia was a gracious host in Florida, and he hosted Smith at Fenway before last Thursday’s game against the Astros.
‘As a Red Sox player, there is a responsibility to be involved and see the kids as much as you can,” Pedroia said. “They come to spring training, they make visits to the field, and those are the times where you can reach out and get to know them and hopefully make an impact in a positive way.’
Pedroia left a lasting impression on Tyler.
‘Sometimes I imagine making the same plays that he makes,’ Tyler said. ‘If I were playing, I’d make them the exact same way.’
Pedroia’s willingness to help the team is a trait Tyler always admired, so he decided he’d also be a team player. Instead of doing it on the field, he would help his teammates in the hospital.
‘Tyler saw kids at the Jimmy Fund clinic who were sick, and some were even sicker than him,’ Brian said. ‘He recognized that, and he’s able to sympathize with those kids.’
Tyler would go room to room and speak with the other children. He would share his story of what it is like to be in the hospital.
‘I’m still friends with one of the girls I visited,’ he said. ‘She was much younger than me and really nervous about getting the pick in her arm. I showed her mine and we talked about it.’
Just liked Pedroia is working with his team on the field, Tyler is doing whatever he can to help ease someone’s pain.
‘If I tell my story,’ he said, ‘maybe there will be one kid in the hospital who will be a little less scared.’
* * *
Tyler Smith is ready to show the world what is possible after conquering cancer.
He has delivered PowerPoint presentations about leukemia to the students at his school. He’s also helped raise over $13,000 over the last two years by collecting change at his middle school with fundraisers for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
‘It’s unbelievable,’ Pedroia said. ‘It shows that, through adversity, there is a young kid who’s been able to overcome and fight through the toughest of times. We look up to these kids like Tyler. They’re the real heroes.’
Tyler even returned to the ice. In a moment that will forever remain etched in his father’s memory, he laced up his skates in October of 2011 and rejoined his youth hockey team.
‘This fragile little kid, who weighed all of 60 pounds because he lost all body mass from the chemotherapy, was back on the ice smiling,’ his father said.
Tyler’s mother was so overwhelmed with emotion she needed to leave the rink.
‘It wasn’t about hockey anymore,’ his father said. ‘He was living again.’
The moment Tyler put on his skates was a turning point, the day he went from treatment to recovery.
‘I felt pretty confident,’ Tyler recalled. ‘I knew I was ready. I wasn’t really aware that my mom was freaking out until after practice. I asked her afterward, ‘Why are you freaking out? I’m totally fine.’ ‘
Thankfully for the Smith family, Tyler is totally fine. This past July 31 marked the third year since he was diagnosed, and he is on schedule to enter the seventh grade this fall.
‘I have a new appreciation for life,’ Tyler said. ‘And I know you can never quit.’