It was late September and her favorite baseball team, the Cardinals, was in Houston, holding fast to the National League’s second wild card, a playoff berth they would eventually win. Maggie Bohannan, now 12, had surgery set for that day. She needed a second port implanted, a new access point for chemotherapy to pour into her bloodstream, and she could use a laugh.
So, she sent a text message to a friend and explained how she was getting ready for the procedure by having her hair buzzed off. The “Matt Holliday haircut again,” she joked.
The reply came quickly.
“That’s great,” it read. “It’s a lot less maintenance in the morning.”
Her friend would know.
He is Matt Holliday.
The Cardinals’ left fielder met Maggie a few days before last Christmas and through text messages, meetings, and even a game of catch at Busch Stadium, the two developed a close friendship. It’s one of several Matt and his wife Leslee, who have three children, have struck during multiple visits to Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center in midtown St. Louis. Matt brought other players into their text circle, and suddenly Maggie was getting bursts of encouragement from David Freese or passing along a compliment to Kyle Lohse for a good game.
And Maggie is not alone. There is 8-year-old Vivien Kozeny, whom Freese surprised at the hospital in April as she recovered from heart surgery. There is 6-year-old Camryn Akerson, who had a dozen operations before she turned 3 and now serves as Cardinal Glennon’s 2012 “miracle ambassador” for the Children’s Miracle Network. She was invited to join a family for frozen yogurt after a Cardinals game – only to realize it was Jon Jay’s when the center fielder joined them, too.
‘Tis the season of appearances, but tag along for a few and the text messages and soft-serve stories quickly reveal relationships and moments that go deeper than a posed photo, an autograph or a news release.
When Holliday met Maggie, “We had a connection,” he said. “These relationships are meaningful. They’re supposed to be. … We have a big passion for kids and want to use this platform I have to help. The relationships are a special part of that. And it’s a two-way street. I get just as much out of them as I hope they do. That’s why you do this.”
Said Maggie: “There were times when this made me look forward to something.”
Last week, Cardinal Glennon hosted visits from several Rams, including Danny Amendola and Lance Kendricks. The Hollidays and Freese made separate stops during the week to take part in toy drops. Matt Holliday happily played background to Santa Claus as the “Firetruck O’ Toys” made its first visit to Cardinal Glennon, bringing more than 500 toys that Matt helped unload Wednesday from the back of a 1963 Chevrolet-Howe fire truck. The fire truck toy drive is the brainchild of Mackenzie Scott, 13, who was diagnosed with Legg-Calve-Perthes disease at 4. She underwent care and treatment at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, and the degenerative bone condition kept her off her feet until her kindergarten graduation. Last week she eagerly helped deliver the toys her idea helped gather.
“If you don’t believe in miracles,” her father, Dave, said, “I have X-rays to prove it.”
Two days after the “Firetruck O’ Toys,” Ameren Corp. brought more than $15,000 in toys to Cardinal Glennon on Friday. Freese was enlisted to ride a sleigh with the toys. From every toy donation that’s approved, some toys go directly to patients and others go into storage. An official with Cardinal Glennon said all the various holiday toy drives will bring in as many as 50,000 toys total and help stock shelves for months to come. That way a toy is available for a child coming out of surgery in July, just as it is around the winter holidays.
The real gift coming from events like last week’s with the players is more immediate and lasting – presence.
“It supports the kids in a way that takes their mind off what they’re going through that day,” said Sherlyn Hailstone, Cardinal Glennon’s president. “It really gives them a memory of being in the hospital that’s not medically related. … They never forget it. They have come to Cardinal Glennon at Christmas time, and that’s a big strain on any family. When people come back, like Matt and like David, it just takes their mind off being sick and allows them to be kids again for a few minutes. It may only take a few hours, but it makes a lasting impression.”
Said Holliday: “If you can put a smile on their face that makes them feel good for 5 minutes or all day, you know you’ve helped.”
The first smile Friday belonged to Freese.
Waiting inside at the hospital for him was Vivien. Dressed in her holiday best, the 8-year-old from St. Louis was back at the hospital not for anything other than to surprise Freese. It was her turn. In April, Vivien had open-heart surgery for a hole in her heart. One day her doctor said he was going to seek a second opinion, and in walked Freese. Vivien made a book of photos and captions from that day and had a copy of it delivered to Busch for Freese.
“I cherish it. I was touched,” Freese said. “You change it up a little bit for them. When you come here every now and then you start seeing the same kids, like Vivien, and you start building a relationship with them. They enjoy it. But so do we. So do we.”
Each of the appearances last week ended with room-by-room visits to different floors of the hospital. Holliday has made at least six visits in the past year just to see a floor of patients, a hospital spokesman said. Freese has made such unscheduled visits before on the way to the ballpark. After autographing a Barney DVD – it’s what the child had handy – Freese pulled a wagon of Cardinals goodies into one wing, where he met patients ages 7 to 19.
Tyler Linton, 7, of Glen Carbon, had been in the hospital several days to find the cause of recurring respiratory distress. He had dressed up as Freese for Halloween. Exhausted by coughing fits and labored breathing, Tyler bolted upright in his bed when the Cardinals’ third baseman walked through his door.
His mother said it was the first time he sat up on his own in two days.
After Freese handed him a signed bat and sat with him for several minutes, Tyler was asked what was waiting at home for Christmas. His mother, Amanda, laughed: “Yeah, you just smoked everything we had.”
In 2012, Freese and Holliday served as spokesmen for the “Homers for Health” campaign. Two officials said the pledge-driven initiative collected nearly $480,000 for Cardinal Glennon, a not-for-profit pediatric hospital. The goal was to generate more than $3,000 in donations for each home run hit by a Cardinal. Dan Buck, the executive director of Cardinal Glennon Children’s Foundation, said they finished with $3,003 per homer. The program will continue for 2013, with Holliday and Freese planning to pull first baseman Allen Craig into the mix. Leslee Holliday, who serves on Cardinal Glennon’s board of governors, helped organize the initiative and said it purposefully does not carry an individual player’s name.
Players come and go and retire. Trades happen.
Sometimes their charity endeavors vanish with them. The hope is the “Homers for Health” program outlasts any of its current spokesmen and continues as long as any Cardinals are hitting home runs.
“And then there is how (the Hollidays) do stuff nobody will ever know about,” Buck said. “The families may not even know. They’re always one phone call away from helping. They spend time with families. Matt will pull up a chair and just listen. You can tell he takes this personal.”
That comes out during the visits.
“You wouldn’t believe the fire that ignites in that place when one of the Cardinals or another celebrity visit, and it’s not just the kids, but the doctors, too,” said Karyn Bohannon, Maggie’s mother. “It lifts everyone. It makes a huge impact, I think, on the kids getting better. They feel special. It’s like, ‘These players are coming to see me. To see me.’”
Karyn’s daughter spent between 70 and 80 nights in the past 12 months at Cardinal Glennon, including 23 days in March. On Dec. 6, 2011, 13 days before Maggie met Matt, she was diagnosed with lymphoblastic T-cell leukemia. She began a regimen of steroids, the opening salvo against what her mother called “blobs of sickness.” Chemotherapy came next. When Maggie was back in the hospital with pancreatitis, the text messages from Holliday started from spring training. They continued, with the “haircut” one being her favorite. Maggie has since returned to school. (“When she gets on the bus, my heart skips,” Karyn said. “My girl is back to life.”)
Maggie has entered what her family has called the maintenance phrase of treatment. It includes an oral form of chemotherapy. Her current schedule is to receive her last treatment in September 2014. With each hospital visit, Maggie tells her mom they are “one more day closer to being better.” Next month, softball practice starts and Maggie is hoping this season to return to her position, catcher.
Vivien is “99 percent recovered,” her mother told Freese, and she has just completed a season of select soccer.
A year to the day after first visiting Maggie, the Hollidays were back at Cardinal Glennon, dropping in on children battling cancer. This floor is where “every kid is in a battle for their life,” a hospital official said. There, the Hollidays visited with Elizabeth Austin, 11, of Brownstone, Ill. She was diagnosed with a tumor on her brain stem in September 2011, her mother Kassie explained. For this hospital visit, Elizabeth packed two baseballs because she knows around the holidays Cardinals sometimes fly by. She was set to go home Friday after the last treatment of her ninth and final chemotherapy cycle. Christmas arrived four days early.
Leslee Holliday suggested to Elizabeth that she get Matt’s number from Maggie, their mutual friend.
“He’ll text you back because he doesn’t like to call,” Leslee said. “He doesn’t return my calls.”
“That’s not true,” Matt said.
“That’s kind of true,” Leslee smiled.
A few minutes after the Hollidays left the room, Elizabeth was looking at the signed baseball left behind when Leslee darted back in and handed Elizabeth a piece of paper. On it was her husband’s cell phone number. Elizabeth wrote later that evening to her friends and family about the visit and, on Facebook, told everyone she put the number safely away.
It went under her pillow.