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A visit to remember: Penn State football team visits patients

Matt Stoner was lying in his hospital bed at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center watching “The Waterboy” ― a movie about college football ― when suddenly what was on the screen seemed to come to life in his doorway.

Six hulking Penn State football players in their jerseys appeared and asked to come in.

Stoner blinked. He’d been in the hospital for two days because doctors thought he’d had another stroke. An earlier one had just struck two weeks ago, and that had prompted a stay at a different hospital. Now he no longer seemed capable of moving anything on the left side of his body, which is why they’d brought him here, to the Neuroscience Critical Care Unit on the fourth floor.

Whatever had happened had bruised his memory. “You tell me a number, and I’ll forget it 30 seconds later,” he said. His left arm and leg laid on the mattress like unfeeling weights as the big visitors he wasn’t expecting filed in.

Penn State football players regularly visit patients at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital to help brighten the days of families struggling with unthinkable illnesses. But during the busy pop-ins, the players don’t often have a chance to meet patients on the adult side of the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. This time, on May 31, during their first in-person visit since before the COVID-19 pandemic, the entire team arrived on multiple buses and spent an hour or so dropping in on patients of all kinds – including the people in the Neuroscience Critical Care Unit.

The visit was a moment to remember for patients whose memories sometimes come dear. People occupying rooms on this floor have suffered strokes, brain hemorrhages and other traumas that affect the delicate machines inside their heads that recall dates, phone numbers and events both bad or, like this one, pretty amazing.

“These visits make those involved feel valued and help motivate patients and caregivers alike,” said Dr. Kevin Cockroft, chair of the Department of Neurosurgery.

Good defense

For a few glorious minutes Stoner and the six players chatted. One of them, No. 96, Matt Groh, a redshirt sophomore punter, hails from Dallastown in York County ― just a half hour drive from Stoner’s home in New Cumberland. They made small talk about weather, and all six players signed a football for him before moving on to the next room.

“My son’s even more into Penn State football than I am,” Stoner said, grinning. With his good hand, he texted his son, who’d also been struck by a number of strokes over the years. Eleven, in fact. The strokes had cost him his eyesight, but his son is such a rabid Penn State fan that he always puts the games on the TV anyway, cranking up the volume so loud “two-thirds of the neighborhood can hear it.”

On the opposite side of the unit, when the team handed Tom Lynn of Lancaster County an autographed football, the Vietnam veteran cocked a wrist and threw a spiral to his daughter, Dominique Miller. Her husband, Marlin, jumped in front of her at the last moment and caught the ball before she could lay a finger on it.

Everyone laughed.

“Defense,” Marlin announced, “has got to do its job.”

Dominique is a Penn State alumna, and she was thrilled when the team marched into the room. They chatted about their majors and their training.

Lynn was OK, they said. He had been admitted to the hospital to get restabilized, that’s all, Marlin said.

Lynn had been in the hospital for three days because of a complication with his myasthenia gravis, a chronic neuromuscular and autoimmune disorder that causes weak limbs and difficulty breathing, talking and swallowing.

“I’ll be stabilized when I can go back to putting food in my mouth,” Lynn said. He pointed to the tube running into one nostril. “Right now, it’s coming in through my nose.”

‘It leaves an impression’

In the hospital room next to Stoner, Sam and Denise Johnson were starstruck, even though they didn’t recognize any of the six visiting giants and their childlike faces. Both Johnsons are Nittany Lion fans, but they mostly watch on TV, and it’s hard to see through the helmets and all that protective gear.

“They’re so big,” Denise said. “You don’t realize how tall they are when they’re on TV.”

She’d had a stroke the day before, and Sam did most of her talking. Some memories were just out of her reach.

Later, when the players gathered in the Tree House Café on the first floor of the Children’s Hospital, Penn State Health CEO Steve Massini spoke to them about memory. He told the players to remember the patients they’d met. Holding onto those memories might help them keep perspective during tough times.

But would the patients remember the players? Any hospital visit has been found to be therapeutic, Cockroft said.

“We know from multiple studies that the presence of visitors enhances feelings of well-being in hospitalized patients and improves various outcome measures,” he said. “The lack of visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic made this all the more obvious.”

But would the moment remain for people struggling to retain what they’ve experienced?

Denise feels confident this memory will stay with her even if others will be harder to retain for a while.

“I think so,” she said, smiling as if running a finger over a mental photo she’d just taken. “It leaves an impression. I’ll be disappointed if it doesn’t.”

After the players climbed aboard the elevator and moved on to a different floor, Stoner’s son asked him if he’d gotten photographic evidence that they’d been there. He hadn’t.

But he’s certain he’ll remember. Numbers might enter his head and leave quickly at the moment, but this was different. “No, you don’t forget that,” he said. “I’ll remember that. It’s a hell of a good day for me.”

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