ANN ARBOR - The doctors at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital fight the devil that is childhood cancer with everything in their complex arsenal - chemotherapy, radiation, synthetic drugs, surgery.
But sometimes, the best they can hope for is a stalemate - to keep the tumors or cancerous cells at bay while their young and weak patients cope with both the disease and the side effects of the battle, which include nausea, vomiting, hair loss, fatigue, anemia, and the increased risk of
These kids are very sick - they've got stuff with more syllables than they have years. But at Mott, a third party has engaged this sinister enemy, and shown that a regular dose of Maize and Blue can sometimes work wonders.
David Schoonover, a fifth-year senior offensive lineman at the University of Michigan, has been the lead medicine man for the Wolverines, and their philanthropic most valuable player.
"There are not too many like David Schoonover who come along," said Ed Boullion, founder of "From the Heart," an organization that connects Michigan athletes with patients at Mott. "Since this whole thing started in 1991, we've had hundreds of student athletes involved, and he's certainly on the top of the list."
Schoonover, a native of the small town of DeWitt, Mich., just north of Lansing, was introduced to the program by another UM player when Schoonover was a freshman. He has been at Mott every week for the past five years for the Thursday visits.
"I had no idea what I was getting into," Schoonover said. "And the first time we came to the hospital, I really didn't understand what was going on. I was meeting these kids who had to deal with some pretty awful things in their lives, and they were all smiling back at me - and I hadn't done anything but just show up at the hospital."
But that was it - Schoonover was hooked. The dreadful diseases these children carried were not contagious, but their indomitable spirit was.
"It quickly became such an eye-opening experience," he said. "To understand what these kids go through every day, every hour - but they have an energy you can't find anywhere else. They act like they're not in the hospital. They just seemed thrilled that a person was coming to see them who wasn't a doctor or a nurse."
Boullion and his wife hatched "From the Heart" while their daughter was being treated for cancer at Mott. She eventually recovered, and today is a pilot for American Airlines. Boullion said he has witnessed from close up the role Michigan athletes have played as holistic healers.
"While my daughter was going through her treatments, a few guys came up once in a while to visit, and the kids all got so excited," he said. "I asked the people at Mott and the folks at the athletic department why this didn't happen more often, and I guess it was just because all of the circumstances were a little awkward. My wife and I decided to become the go-betweens and try to make it grow."
The Boullions meet the athletes in the lobby and then introduce them to the children. Something magical but medicinally inexplicable then takes place.
They've brought in Desmond Howard, a Michigan Heisman Trophy winner; Tom Brady, who would become a star NFL quarterback; and Juwan Howard, one of UM's basketball Fab Five. And there are swimmers and hockey players and members of the women's basketball team visiting Mott, too.
"Some of the athletes would come only once, and find out this just isn't for them," Boullion said. "And some just go to the main hospital because it's a little more comfortable over there. But the David Schoonovers and the other ones who come to Mott - they generate so much happiness for these seriously ill children. They do something today's medicine can't."
Schoonover has made a difference in lives otherwise fraught with cycles of pain and despair, and worse. Boullion said some sick children come to Mott with no interest in sports or the University of Michigan, but they all leave as big fans.
"You see these great big football guys come in here, and most of them are scared to death," Boullion said, "because they don't know how kids this young can be this sick. But David sees the worst of them - the kids with cancer, leukemia, and other terminal, long-term illnesses. He sees kids so sick they can't lift their arms, and they just light up when he walks in the room."
Schoonover, a biology major who will attend Michigan's dental school next year, has won a number of academic honors, and was awarded a graduate scholarship at the recent team banquet. He will follow his father's path and become a dentist.
"When you come through those hospital doors, it puts everything in perspective," Schoonover said. "You realize your family and the people around you are what is important, and football goes on the back burner for a while. You can have a really bad day in practice, then come over here and feel a lot better. The inspiration these kids give you, it teaches us all some things about life."
Schoonover said about half of the players on the Michigan football team have made visits to Mott, encouraged to do so by both he and head coach Lloyd Carr. Sophomore Jamar Adams said Schoonover's dedication to the cause has been inspiring to him.
"I think our team has a lot of spiritual guys, and David Schoonover is one of them," Adams said. "He goes to the
hospital every Thursday, and he takes different teammates with him. It keeps you spiritually grounded, and I think that helps you with football, and it helps you in life to keep that balance."
Schoonover played a significant role in the recovery of Zachary Martin, a 17-year-old senior at Montpelier High School who recently spent seven months at Mott waging his war on leu-
"From the first time he came to visit, I could just tell he was a pretty cool guy," Martin said. "I'm a big Ohio State fan, but he was still there every week, and we joked about it all the time. I was really sick at first, but we just talked with each other like friends, not like somebody being in the hospital."
Martin's parents watched the weekly visits from Schoonover and other Wolverines resurrect the sparkle in their son's eyes. During his treatment, Zachary lost his hair, his strength, and any semblance of a normal life, but he always bounced back
after the Thursday visits.
"It was the highlight of the week for him," Ronda Martin said. "Here we had these macho football players spending their free time with these very sick and fragile kids. It brought tears to my eyes to witness that. You don't see that kind of genuine compassion much anymore, and it made a world of difference in my son's recovery."
Zachary Martin is back home now - with hair, and without leukemia. His latest biopsy was clean, and he proudly displays the Ohio State flag that hung in his hospital room - now adorned with the signatures of Schoonover and a number of other Wolverines, and a bunch of "Go Blue!" slogans.
"Coach Carr always talks about being part of something bigger than yourself," Schoonover said, "and I think that definitely takes place here at the hospital. We come in here, a bunch of big strong guys who think they can move the world, but this isn't about physical strength. It is a deeper issue."
Schoonover's mettle gets tested when one of the kids he has developed a relationship with succumbs to his or her illness.
"When you lose one, when one of the kids you've met passes away, it is a hard experience to go through," Schoonover said, "but at the same time you realize that they are there for a very serious reason, and death is a possibility. If that happens, God says it is their time. Everybody experiences loss in their life, but that process is just accelerated sometimes."
"Some don't make it," Boullion said, "and David has been to their funerals. But he keeps coming back to the hospital, and giving them his time, his concern, and his smile."
Boullion talked of one extremely ill boy who was sobbing - from the torture of the disease and the drain on his body - as some UM players approached his hospital room. The boy, a big Michigan fan who had been heavily medicated to help him deal with his intense pain, sat up in bed when the players walked in. A minute later he was smiling and talking, and firing football questions at the players.
"His dad was shocked. The doctor was shocked. And when the doctor walked out of the room he just shook his head and said, 'Sometimes I think your medicine is better than ours,' " Boullion said.
"I have to believe that people like David Schoonover are really caring for these kids - in a different kind of way. I watch these children come to life when David and the other athletes come in the room. And when I see things like that, I know there's a God."
Schoonover has played only a few downs in just five games in his five years on the University of Michigan football team.
But to the kids at Mott, the ones who have to be threaded back into bed because of all the tubes and wires and monitors attached to their frail bodies, he is the No. 1 Wolverine.
"Don't ever go to the hospital and tell those kids he's not a star," Boullion said. "You can bring in the top scorers, the best players and the guys who make all the headlines on Saturdays, but those kids at Mott all know David Schoonover - and he is their star.
"I've taken these kids to games, and they want to watch him and what he's doing. They watch him warm up, and they watch him on the sideline. He is clearly their hero."
Contact Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6510.