Dr. Ryan Smith enjoys solving problems. While pursuing a degree in Chemical Engineering, he decided he preferred finding solutions for equations with a human element. So he switched studies to medicine, and now he’s a pediatrician at Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital in Orillia, Ontario. That’s where he met the remarkable Aunika Kerr, one day after she was born.
Little Aunika was born without an immune system. In addition to deafness in one smaller ear, and swallowing issues that necessitate a feeding tube, Aunika lacked the thymus gland responsible for educating T cells to defend her body against infection. Now a year old, she has a thymus – thanks to the efforts and expertise of a team of healthcare professionals anchored by Smith, the Kerrs’ crucial first point of contact.
“He’s our go-to guy,” says Aunika’s mom Maggie. “We made such a great bond with him.” Smith supported the Kerrs through Aunika’s first week, coordinating kiddo’s transfer to the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children – where a battery of tests couldn’t determine a clear path for her treatment. Should they transplant T cell-rich bone marrow? Or the thymus itself, in a new procedure performed by only one hospital?
“My mother’s instinct was screaming at me that it was the thymus,” says Maggie. She knew she should get Aunika to the single transplant facility, Duke University in the US. Smith’s nonjudgmental manner boosted the Kerrs’ confidence to take steps. “He never gave us a definitive yes or no,” says Aunika’s dad Jason. “He allowed us to have hope.” Smith also helped petition Canada’s Ministry of Health to cover the operation.
“I can’t truly know what families are going through,” says Smith. “Each patient has a unique environmental, cultural and social situation. That, combined with the variation in presentations of any given disease, makes it even less likely a physician can ‘know how it feels’. My role is to have a clear and accurate discussion about what is known, and what needs to be done. To be open and honest is essential.”
Smith does not work alone. “I rely on a team,” he says. “From laboratory technicians to pharmacists, nurses and care coordinators, home care workers, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, dieticians; it’s very humbling to reflect on my one role.” But when asked who they wanted to nominate for the Ontario Medical Association’s In Sickness and In Health campaign, Maggie and Jason agreed: hands down, Dr. Smith.
“He is so kind and gentle and thorough,” says Maggie. “Always chatting with Aunika, genuinely excited to see how she’s doing, how much she’s grown.” Adds Jason: “He’s sensitive and understanding. He reassured us the emotions we felt are normal, and paid close attention to the relationship. We lean on him to help guide us.” As the first Ontarian with a transplanted thymus, Aunika is lucky to have Dr. Smith on her team.
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