Demetrius Flores will likely never remember the day he met Dwyane Wade.
That afternoon, in the pediatric ward of Miami's Baptist Children's Hospital, the cherub-faced four-year-old was cranky and exhausted. He unwittingly dismissed the impressive contingent of Miami Heat players who stopped by his room to deliver Christmas gifts. Demetrius was teary-eyed and clearly didn't feel well. Not even a superstar like D-Wade could ease the precious youngster's suffering.
It was December 23, 2011, two days before the shortened 2011-12 season was scheduled to begin. Wade was joined by a number of his teammates as they made their annual holiday hospital visits. Heat players have been surprising children in South Florida hospitals for over 20 years. The patients range in age from toddlers to teens. Some of them enthusiastically recognize our guys while others react like Demetrius does -- too young or too sick to understand.
But Demetrius' parents, Catalina and Jose, humble and hard-working 30-somethings, understood. The die-hard Heat fans had been holed up in Room 3008 for over 72 hours tending to their son who is battling a stubborn fever. Wade, Mario Chalmers, Joel Anthony, Juwan Howard and Norris Cole, among others, gently placed gifts on Demetrius' bed. Both parents grinned delightedly. I've seen that same joyful look many times throughout the years and it's always fantastic to witness.
Just over a year ago, the Flores family learned that their rambunctious son has Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells. They shared the devastating news with their extended network of family and friends -- which includes yours truly. I've known Cati and Jose for over a decade.
Hospital personnel refer to them as 'The Heat Family' because on Memorial Day 2011, the day Demetrius was diagnosed, mother, father and son were all wearing Heat jerseys in celebration of the team's playoff run. Running into them through the course of this activity is completely serendipitous -- almost as serendipitous as seeing Catalina sporting her black Dwyane Wade t-shirt on the very day he makes a surprise visit. Suddenly this hospital visit feels very, very personal.
"When you have a sick child, that's when you really become a mother," Cati says solemnly, the enormity of that statement swirling around in my head. Every three months, she donates red blood cells, platelets -- whatever will help Demetrius and others like him. She quit her job to be his full-time caretaker. His treatment has cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. I'm not a parent, but I am especially in awe of all those who care for a sick child every single minute of every single day. I take for granted just how emotionally, physically and financially debilitating their predicament is. It's a sobering reality. The sports lexicon includes words like strength, endurance and sacrifice, but these words truly belong to people like my friends Cati and Jose.
On that day, I was reminded that sports is an agent of healing. "The players' visit is something that I'll probably never experience again in my life and it was uplifting because we're so focused on Demetrius getting better" Cati says about the holiday surprise. "It gave us something else to think about and talk about throughout the day. It was a really nice experience." Wow! The far-reaching effects of our team's simple endeavor washes over me just then: we gifted these tireless parents with a much-needed timeout. On that day, with this family in this room, it was the parents, sitting quietly in the background of their son's illness, who welcomed a healthy distraction, if only momentarily, from the fever, the cancer and the stress.
Nearly six months later, Cati tells me Demetrius is doing very well and she and Jose are still talking about the holiday visit and how wonderful it was. I hear the joy in her voice all over again. "I always say, 'see those people who are playing basketball today? I actually got to meet them. I actually got to meet them two feet away from me. And they gave Demetrius a bike. And they gave Demetrius gifts.' I have only positive things to say." As cliché as it sounds, there's nothing quite like a gift that keeps on giving.