- Associated Press - Thursday, April 2, 2015

FLUSHING, Mich. (AP) - Derek Blalock met Tommy Smith in eighth grade at Flushing Middle School while playing football and sitting in German class.

“We became pretty close because my mom ran a catering shop and his parents helped my mom out a lot with catering and a couple restaurants she owned,” said Blalock, a 21-year-old Michigan State University senior and Flushing High graduate, of Mary and Jonathan Smith.

Blalock remembered going on his first hunting trip with the Smith family and spending countless hours after school hanging out with Tommy after school.

“If you ask anyone, he honestly was just the nicest kid and pretty destined for a bright future,” he told The Flint Journal ( https://bit.ly/1yx7wl4 ). “Everybody enjoyed his company. He was just a cool kid to be around. He could make you laugh when you needed it and I really miss him.”

On May 18, Blalock is embarking on a 6,500-mile, 75-day, 23-state bicycle trip with hopes of raising $25,000 and awareness for the Thomas Smith Memorial Foundation, started by the Smith family following Tommy’s death due to sudden cardiac arrest in 2011.

Mary Smith said it was a snowy night on Jan. 29, 2011, when she asked Tommy to come home early to avoid any of the nasty weather.

“I said, ‘Don’t be after dark because the roads are really bad,’” she recalled on a recent weekday at the Smith family home. “He made it home and he walked in the back door and he said mom, my heart’s racing.”

Placing her hand over his chest, Smith said, “I could feel his heart beating.”

“I said, OK, well just calm down, just calm down,” she said.

Thinking a shower may do the trick, Tommy jumped into the shower.

“Unfortunately, he fell right over, dead in the bathroom,” said Jonathan Smith, who removed him from the shower and performed CPR on him until the paramedics arrived, but, “There was never another heartbeat out of him.”

Amid the whole scene, Mary Smith said, “We were just absolutely dumbfounded.”

“How could this 17-year-old person, so healthy, as we thought, have collapsed and never regained consciousness?” she said. “A million questions were running through our heads. You think, did he do drugs? What happened? Was he poisoned?”

After some time at McLaren, Mary Smith said the family was told Tommy had suffered sudden cardiac arrest due to an enlarged heart.

“We didn’t have peace, but we knew it wasn’t drugs, it wasn’t poison, or anything like that,” she said, but Jonathan Smith said with a son in such good shape he thought, “This happens to 80-year-old people, not 17-year-old kids.”

The questions didn’t end, now coming from health care professionals, medical examiner and Child Protective Services.

With Tommy having died in the family’s home, an investigation took place to see if any child abuse had been taking place.

“The woman stood at the front door, trembling when she asked to come in,” recalled Jonathan Smith of the CPS employee, crying along with the family while asking questions.

“I’m glad I didn’t know that until afterwards, because that would have just compounded the pain we were in,” said Mary Smith of the extent of the investigation, which she didn’t know about until after Tommy’s autopsy results came in more than four months after his death.

Mary, Jonathan and older son Jacob all underwent heart screenings, to find out if they had any conditions that needed to be evaluated, and began to learn more about the medical condition that took their son’s life.

Tommy played football, was a champion power weightlifter and always on the go, be it rooting on a team during a game or hanging out with friends, to helping Jonathan on construction jobs.

“Just truly in his prime and everything he did with 110 percent passing,” Jonathan Smith said, from reading to school work, adding “It’s why the football team loved him. It’s just the way he was, it’s just the way he lived his life.”

Those touched by Tommy’s life would become instrumental in helping his family over their grief and lead them to try and help save other lives.

In the days following Tommy’s death, the family said the outpouring of support from the Flushing community was beyond belief.

From donations, to a vigil held in honor of their son where people took the microphone and shared their stories about Tommy, and a special basketball game.

T-shirts bearing a photo of Tommy during a weightlifting contest graced the chests of 500 people attending the game, but the district had also arranged some special guests in the crowd.

“The school said we have some people we want you to meet and they had four or five other families that lost their kids and they introduced us to them one at a time,” said Jonathan Smith of the families near and far whose children had died at a soccer field, track or elsewhere. “They said, the best way it was put, is they said you guys are a member of an elite club. Nobody wants to be in it, but you’re members now and we work together and help each other.”

With donations coming in, Jonathan and Mary Smith looked to start a scholarship fund, but their plan evolved after learning more about their son’s undiagnosed condition.

“Up until about nine months after he died, we were kind of numb,” said Mary Smith. “We couldn’t even focus on reality, let alone do anything, but it was in our heads that we had to stop this from happening to other people because of what we had been through.”

The family spoke with a lawyer to try and start a nonprofit foundation to provide heart screenings for children in schools throughout the state of Michigan.

Jonathan Smith likened his son’s condition to “almost like flicking a switch.”

“It’s an electrical shutdown to the system,” he said, unlike a heart attack that causes a prolonged ache in the chest. “Sudden cardiac arrest is just lights out and then you collapse.”

The screenings started by the family as part of the Thomas Smith Heart Foundation in conjunction with Hurley Medical Center have caught such conditions, with four screenings serving 1,500 children between the ages of 13-19, detecting more than 100 with heart conditions and 18 with critical heart ailments.

Scott Bonzheim, a physician assistant in the emergency room at Hurley, began screenings in the Flint area with the help of Beaumont Health System in Southeast Michigan that provided equipment for the first screening.

“The concept of the screening is to identify kids with risk for sudden death, kids that are dying suddenly from exercise,” he said. “Then we also identify a lot of other things that may not lead to sudden death.”

The free screenings start with children bringing in their family’s medical history, checked for height, weight, blood pressure and then an EKG to check the heart’s electrical activity.

Students then have an evaluation by a physician, with some receiving no restrictions, others recommended for further evaluation, while others are immediately pulled for any type of athletics, Bonzheim said, with around one-fifth going on to have an echocardiogram of their heart.

He said the MSHAA has added several more questions on its physical forms regarding potential heart issues, but the heart check is not a requirement and could be cost-prohibitive.

“If you were to do this, maybe end up being a couple thousand dollars to have this testing done and it doesn’t really work,” said Bonzheim, thankful to the Smiths for their donations toward equipment that is now used for the screenings.

Jacob Smith, treasurer for the foundation, said they have donated more than $50,000 toward EKG and ECG machines, portable screens used in gymnasiums to provide privacy and beds used for evaluations, and provided more than $3 million in free screenings.

Many times, the children are nervous, some never having had a test done before and uncertain of the outcome, but Mary Smith said it’s vitally important, especially in families where there is a previous incident.

“If you have a family member under the age of 50 die of a heart issue it, is very strongly recommended that you bring your child,” she said. “But then again, 95 percent of all young people who die of sudden cardiac arrest have absolutely no symptoms, just like our son. They’re perfectly healthy one minute and then the very next minute they’re gone.”

During football games and other events where the family provides information to parents on the screenings, Jonathan Smith said some may not want to throw off their children’s track on athletics while others think it can’t happen.

“And then my response is that’s what we thought about our child, too,” said Mary Smith. “I never want to put a guilt trip on anybody, but we’ve already lost our child, we’re there to help them so they don’t have to go through it.”

As the state chapter liaison for Parent Heart Watch, Mary Smith has also advocated for death certificates to include sudden cardiac arrest as a cause of death, to try to accurately gauge the number of young people dying from the condition.

Moving forward with the foundation, Mary Smith said she hopes to collaborate with schools and hospitals to have screenings in every county of the state and provide AEDS where they are needed to make that goal a reality.

Jonathan Smith said with children that were 9 years old when Tommy died now coming up to the age where screenings can be provided, it’s added more motivation for the family.

“I’m like, oh my gosh, we’ve got to start over again, it’s got to be more continual,” he said. “We’ve bought this equipment. We’ve got to use it more. We’ve got to make ourselves more mobile.”

Donations raised by Blalock on his bicycle ride could help play a part in their vision moving forward.

Blalock said the idea of a bicycle ride came during a summer sports camp in 2012 and some movie magic.

“It’s going to sound crazy. I actually got the idea of Forrest Gump running across America 100 times,” he laughed.

When Tommy died, which Blalock said he first realized after Facebook messages kept popping up offering condolences, he and his family helped organized a spaghetti dinner to help the Smith family while also coping with the loss.

“I think it was definitely a shock, because just the kind of person Tommy was, you just wouldn’t believe he would be the one,” said Blalock. “I feel a lot of people have that person who dies early on (if life) and shouldn’t.”

Helping building houses for Habitat For Humanity and while doing other charitable deeds, Blalock said he thought, “It would be really cool to make my own route, raise my own money and make my own cause” and decided this path to honor his friend.

When asked about Blalock’s ride, Mary Smith welled up with tears.

“I would say very proud of what he’s doing and very honored that Tommy meant so much to him that he would do this and to bring awareness,” she said. “He doesn’t know this yet, but he is going to save lives, because as awareness comes and education. He will inspire a parent somewhere to take their child for a screening and he will save their lives. He just doesn’t know it yet and we’ll never know the ripples of what Tommy’s death will do to this world.”

The 18 children his death has saved shows God is working through her son, Smith said. While she doesn’t know them by name, “I expect great things out of these kids because God gave them a second chance and they better use it wise.”

___

Information from: The Flint Journal, https://www.mlive.com/flint

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