Cameron Smith has spent decades traveling the country on his motorcycle, but nothing quite matches the car ride he took to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute this summer—his first visit in 40 years to the cancer center where Institute founder Sidney Farber, MD, saved his life in 1961.
Smith, then a 14-month-old toddler from Connecticut, had a form of cancer that few children survived. But he beat the odds, continuing to receive follow-up care from Farber and other doctors until he was 18 and moved to the West Coast. He put cancer behind him and planned to never return to Boston until a June trip to Fenway Park for a Boston Red Sox baseball game.
Encouraged by his girlfriend Beth Orliss, and the tug of his heartstrings, he decided the time was right.
“This was where I grew up,” Smith, 58, said as he looked at the Jimmy Fund Building that until the early 1970s housed Dana-Farber’s pediatric clinical facilities. “I wanted to come back and say ‘Hey, look, I made it.’”
He doesn’t remember his surgery or the chemotherapy he received in those early years, but he can easily recall with pride the follow-up care that he received. For more than a decade, he would make a semi-regular three-hour drive to Boston with his dad for follow-up care.
“It was hard for my parents to come here, so starting when I was 5, my father would drop me off in front of the Jimmy Fund Building and I’d go up the steps and in the front door to the clinic,” recalls Smith. “I’d walk past the carousel and the electric train, which I loved, and get my chart off the wall. Then, I’d take my own weight and height, give it to the receptionist, and wait until my name was called for bloodwork. At the end of the day, I got a gold star and tickets to the Red Sox game for me and my dad.”
Smith says colored lines along the floor helped pediatric patients navigate their way around Dana-Farber and through underground tunnels that connected it with Boston Children’s Hospital. The lines were long gone during Smith and Orliss’ recent visit, as were the carousel and the Disney paintings on the walls that once provided him comfort. Still, he enjoyed touring the current Jimmy Fund Clinic, now a part of the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, and the expanded campus.
“We grew close with everybody there—they were like family,” says Smith. “Mom used to knit hats for the young patients in between my visits, and my dad and I brought in toys for the clinic kids at Christmastime. The thing I remember most about Dr. Farber was how kind he was, and that he always had pockets full of candy.”
Looking at his medical records for the first time, including personal letters from Dr. Farber’s team to his parents, Smith felt a sense of pride, which he shared with a pair of women who saw him observing Farber’s portrait.
“I was his patient, and they didn’t think I’d make it,” he said, a smile crossing his face. “But I did!”