On July 26, 2009, Ryan Smith sat nearly immobile in the neonatal intensive care unit at Saint Vincent Hospital, breathing shallowly, his mind and heart racing.
The thought of even moving was overwhelming, but nothing could have been more painful than what Smith and his then-wife Katrina were experiencing. The couple had just made the decision to remove their son, Grady, from life support.
Grady and his twin sister, Gianna, had been born prematurely at 26 weeks. Gianna was holding her own, but Grady already had endured three major brain bleeds, and every breath was challenging him.
“I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know how I can walk out of this room,” said Smith, who earned a degree in management and a master of business administration from Penn State Behrend. “How do I go tell people what just happened?”
The first person to arrive at the hospital was longtime Behrend baseball coach Paul Benim. Smith had played for Benim in 1998 and 1999, helping to lead the Lions to back-to-back Eastern College Athletic Conference titles and 35-8 and 33-10 records, respectively.
The impact Benim had on Smith over the years was considerable. When Smith first joined the team, he shared his favorite Bible verse – Philippians 4:13 – with Benim. Two years later, Smith was amazed to hear Benim repeat the verse back to him as he pitched in the seventh inning of a playoff game.
“I walked the first two batters of the inning, and Coach Benim came out to the mound,” Smith said. “He looked at me and said, ‘Ryan, you can do all things through Christ, who strengthens you.’ I was so floored by his memory that I just stood there in awe.”
Benim’s arrival at the hospital that day in July was welcome. But this time, the stakes were much higher than a playoff baseball game.
Together, the two men went for a brief walk.
“I don’t remember how long we walked, but I just vented and vented, and he took all of that in,” Smith said. “When we got back to the front door, he looked at me and said, ‘You can do all things through Christ, who strengthens you.’”
The support from Benim and others proved vital to Smith over the next few months. Though Grady was gone, Gianna remained in intensive care for 71 days.
At one point, she was flown to UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital in Pittsburgh.
For the Smiths, the ordeal involved months of hotel stays, fast-food meals and hospital parking bills. It was this experience that inspired Smith to create Grady’s Decision, a nonprofit organization that assists families experiencing premature birth.
“There’s nothing out there to help families who are in this situation,” Smith said. “It was such a stressful time, but we thought, ‘How can we take Gianna’s hope story and Grady’s life and do something for others?’”
Grady’s Decision helps families with parking costs, food, temporary housing and transportation needs.
The number of families who experience premature births is considerable: One out of every 10 babies is born prematurely. Babies born before the 32nd week, as the Smith twins were, are considered micro preemies.
“Our mission is to give people more opportunities to see their child,” Smith said. “I never want someone to miss out on seeing their child in the NICU because he or she has to work.”
Since its founding almost 10 years ago, Grady’s Decision has raised more than $1.5 million to help more than 1,500 families in several states and two countries. Phil Stuczynski, a lecturer in business at Penn State Behrend, and his wife were among the families who were helped recently.
Several prominent companies, including the Cleveland Cavaliers, have supported the organization and its mission.
“Grady has been a part of everything we’ve done, and we’ve let his story live on,” Smith said. “The whole experience shows that no matter how old you are and no matter how long you live, your life can have a deep impact.”
To learn more about Grady’s Decision, visit gradysdecision.com.
Marketing Communications Coordinator, Penn State Erie, The Behrend College