Picking up their spirits


By Teresa Varley

It didn't take long for the impact to be felt when Max Starks and Ryan McBean walked into the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.

"It's great. I have been a Steelers fan all of my life," said Chuck Patterson. "This is nice. It's a great pick me up. It's the first time I smiled today."

Patterson had a reason to be down before the visit. He was one of the many patients that the two Steelers players were visiting who was undergoing chemotherapy treatments at the center. It's a tough time for them, but having the players come in for a visit and spread some love and cheer on Valentine's Day was just what the doctor ordered.

"I actually just had a pretty personal interaction when I was in with a patient of mine," said Dr. Michael Gibson, Assistant Professor of Medicine and Co-leader of the Thoracic Lung and Esophageal Cancer Program of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. "It's a gentleman who was lying down, getting fluids, not feeling well today. When the two players came in he was pretty emotional. He was having a bad day. He was feeling a little bit better from the fluids but I think he is feeling a lot better from these guys coming in to see him.

"I think I have seen a lot of morale benefits for the patients and the staff is excited too. I think it's been great."

Starks and McBean made the rounds and visited patients of all ages, a sad sign that cancer doesn't have a target audience but can randomly strike at anyone at any time.

Some were quiet, a little taken aback by seeing two of their heroes, while others had boundless energy.

"It meant a lot," said Dana Tomajko of Monroeville, who was decked out in her normal attire of Steelers gear and was thrilled to be talking with the players. "I was all excited. It was such a big surprise."

Tomajko has attended plenty of Steelers games in the past and has a true love for the black and gold. But it's been hampered a bit from her treatments.

"Being sick it was hard for me to go to the games," said Tamajko. "I got to go to one game this year. I was so excited. I made it, it was a little hard for me, but I enjoyed it."

It wasn't just the patients who enjoyed the visit. The players were overwhelmed by the warmth they received as they went from patient to patient in the center, that looked more like it was decorated for a Steelers game than Valentine's day as black and gold was everywhere, including the color of the heart cookies that were being handed out.

"It was a whole lot of fun," said McBean. "These people don't know if tomorrow is promised for them. For me to give my time to them, whatever I can do to help them I am willing to do.

"It makes me feel better to see the reaction on their faces. I am always willing to give my time to those who are more unfortunate. I am happy to see the smiles on their faces. It makes me feel better."

Susan Koch, originally from Brooklyn, New York but now living in Pittsburgh, sat quietly with an IV in her arm following the visit, continuing her treatment. And while she knew the IV was there, the smile was a sure sign that it wasn't her focus at that moment.

"I think it was fantastic. I really do," said Koch, a diehard Steelers fan. "A lot of us patients appreciated them taking the time out to come and visit with us.

"It's very uplifting. It's nice that they care enough to come spend some time with us knowing our spirits are down."

The visit had a special meaning for Starks, whose mother Eleanor fought her own battle with breast cancer and survived. He was able to share her story with some of the patients and it helped him understand her fight a little better as he was just a young kid when she went through it.

"This is a great experience," said Starks. "It's cool to come out here, sit with patients and talk to them and provide a little cheer in the day. Knowing you have brightened someone's day that is not enjoying it because they are getting chemo, it made me feel good to see the smiles on people's faces that were frowning or they were down and they got chipper all of a sudden. It was cool doing that. It was a great experience. We had fun out here.

"They can always look back and know we cared. We wanted to do it. It's a rough process, especially people just starting their chemo which were some of the people we saw. It's a long road. Maybe we did give them a little more hope. We hope that it helped."

It was easy to see that it helped a lot.

"I could see Steelers every week and it would bring me joy every week," said Pat Cani of New Kensington, Pa. "It really brings joy when you get to do something special. This is special. Every day I look for something special in my life, and this is special."

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