ORLANDO, Fla. – Arnold Palmer has that smile. The kind that makes you reply in same.
Never is it more genuine than when he’s around kids, particularly around those who could really use a smile.
“Who is this young man?” Palmer asks, walking through the door of a fourth-floor room which serves hospital patients with cancer and blood disorders.
“This is Arthur,” the young man’s father replies.'
Well, Arthur, it is nice to meet you. You keep on fighting,” Palmer offers, giving the kid a hand shake and one of those grins.
Arthur’s mom looks at her son and says, “Now when we say we’re going to Arnold Palmer, you know who we’re talking about.”
On Sept. 10, the same day its namesake turns 80 years old, the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children marks its 20th anniversary.
For two decades the medical center, which is now complemented by the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies, has been saving the lives of children, toddlers, infants, moms, teenagers and the unborn.
The man himself takes little credit for such glorious achievement, instead telling a group of gathered community leaders and hospital personnel, “All of these things that have happened are not me, they are not my doings. They are you people. You people have made all of this happen.”
Arnold Palmer didn’t save Brandon Brown’s right leg from amputation. He didn’t save Shannon Smowton’s life after she contracted E. coli. He didn’t mend Jessica Lagges’ heart after it literally broke in two. And, although an accomplished pilot, he didn’t fly Trinity Simmons back to the United States after she was born prematurely in a foreign country.
But he helped make these things possible.
That, to these kids, is his legacy.
Brandon Brown had never heard of Arnold Palmer. A track star in Michigan, his heroes were far more modern, much, much faster.
But in 2007, at the age of 17, Brandon was dragged from a friend’s car. His ankle bone was shredded. Doctors in his hometown of Otisville had but one solution: amputation just below the right knee.
“There was no way we were going to let that happen,” Brandon’s mother, Valerie Bader, says. “We were going to get a hundred second opinions.”
After learning of his situation Brandon’s track coach, Kirk Richards, sent an e-mail through the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children’s Web site. He had seen commercials for the hospital during the Arnold Palmer Invitational telecast.
That message was eventually forwarded to John Carney, a pediatric sports medicine administrator. He received it on New Year’s Eve.
“We were headed out for dinner and I saw this e-mail come through. I told everyone, ‘Just go without me and I’ll catch up,’” Carney recalls. “It was just amazing – I’m reading about this kid whose doctors say he needs to have his leg amputated and I’m thinking they have him on a table somewhere with a cleaver in their hands.”
Carney was determined to help Brandon. First his specialists needed to see x-rays. Since the local hospital didn’t have digital copies, Valerie held the hard copies against a glass door and let the sunlight radiate the image. She took digital photos and sent them south.
In February, Brandon and his mother – who is tearfully afraid to fly – took a commercial flight to Orlando for a consultation. On St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2008, the operation, which required bone to be removed from his hip in order to reattach his ankle, was performed.
“From the start [the doctors at Arnold Palmer Hospital] saw him running and walking again, just like I saw him,” Valerie says. “There were no ifs, ands or buts.”
In May of this year, Brandon returned to Orlando. Not for a check-up or rehabilitation, but to compete in the Golden South Classic track meet.
The kid who was told he needed to have his right leg cut off cleared 6 feet on the high jump.
“It was pretty cool,” Brandon says calmly, to which his mother adds with great pride, “I just went crazy.”
Crazy, in a far more negative sense, describes the state of mind in which many of the parents whose kids are admitted to Arnold Palmer Hospital find themselves.
Mark and Alyssa Simmons can attest. The two were in Panama City, Panama when their daughter Trinity was born at Centro Medico Paitilla Hospital on April 8, 2005 – three months early.
Trinity weighed only 2 pounds and needed a respirator to breathe.
“We were very thankful for the treatment we received in Panama,” Alyssa says, “but given the circumstances we really wanted to be at Arnold Palmer.”
Alyssa and Mark were well aware of the care, support and technology Arnold Palmer Hospital provided. Their first child, daughter Sagan, was born there.
Six days after her more unusual birth, Trinty, accompanied by her mother, made the three-hour journey aboard the National Air Ambulance to the APH Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. It was the hospital’s first international transport. It was a success, as are many of the things the hospital does.
“We have so much love for the people here,” Alyssa says, standing outside the hospital as staff, community officials, and past and present patient families celebrate its 20th anniversary.
“Thank you,” writes 4-year-old Trinity on the side of a city bus honoring the occasion, starting with her left hand and finishing with her right, adding a smiley face as punctuation.
Palmer signs the bus as well. He also walks over to a young girl, in the arms of her mother, and autographs her shirt. Her head has single strands of hair, the obvious result of chemotherapy. Her yellow shirt has “Team A.P.” written in black, permanent marker. Her face has Palmer’s mirrored smile.
For all he’s accomplished, Palmer, a man they call The King, views the establishment and expansion of this medical center as his crowning achievement. 'The golf is one thing,' he says, 'this is another. What we do with women and children is much, much greater. This beats everything.”
Off to the side of the happenings stands Jessica Lagges. She was involved in an automobile accident in 2005 during her junior year of high school. The crash ripped apart her heart. She would have to wait seven months just for her heart to regain enough strength to undergo surgery.
Jessica is now going to school to pursue a career in the medical field.
“It’s amazing what they do,” she says. “If not for this hospital I don’t think I’d be alive.”
Kathie Smowton says the same thing about her youngest daughter, Shannon.
In February 2005, Kathie and her two girls, Shannon and MacKenzie, were attending the Florida Strawberry Festival, where they stopped at a petting farm.
This was on a Friday. By Monday, Shannon had a 102-degree fever. Wednesday brought severe abdominal cramping and debilitating pain. Doctors thought she had contracted some kind of virus. But when the lining of Shannon’s stomach began unattaching, Kathie was advised to take her to Arnold Palmer.
Shannon checked into the hospital March 17. She didn’t leave until she was transferred to a Jacksonville rehab center on June 5.
She was quickly diagnosed as having contracted E. coli, but two days into her stay she was placed on a ventilator. Her parents were at the cafeteria when a nurse came running in to tell them they were needed upstairs.
“Dr. (Jorge) Ramirez looked at us and said, ‘She’s not responding, things are going down. It’s not looking well,’” Shannon's father, Greg, recalls.
“When he said that, it’s when it really hit us: she might not live. Kathie started trembling and we went outside the room and both started bawling.”
Shannon, who turned 6 during her hospital stay, eventually began to improve, but her digestive tract leaked a deadly bacteria, clostridium, into her bloodstream. The bacteria attacked her brain, creating abscesses and paralysis on her left side.
A multitude of the hospital’s finest specialists took part in saving Shannon, each doing their part to destroy the bacteria and heal her body.
“We think about it all the time: ‘What if this had happened somewhere else? What if she couldn’t have received this kind of special care?’” Kathie says. “I don’t think she’d be with us today if not for the doctors at Arnold Palmer.”
“We are eternally grateful to them,” Greg promptly adds.
A healthy and beaming Shannon returned to Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children as part of the double birthday celebration. This time, instead of meeting with the doctors her parents call their “extended family,” she meets the man. The King.
Of course, Shannon doesn’t know about Palmer’s full stature in the game. She’s only 10.
She doesn’t know about his seven major titles or 62 PGA Tour victories. She doesn’t know about his army.
But she does know that his name is the one on the hospital that saved her life. And when she hears that name, it makes her smile.