RINGING ENDORSEMENTS: Program lets former patients tour, help sing praises of Children’s Hospital Colorado


AURORA | Janet Roark thought the ultrasound images showed that there was nothing wrong with her son, that his awkward pose in the womb was a harmless sign that he was sucking on his foot.

It wasn’t until Matthew Roark was born that his parents and his doctors realized the position in the womb revealed a potentially fatal threat. Matthew’s leg was extended to his head; he was bent in half and the umbilical cord had been wrapped around his head and neck — twice. Before he was 3 years old, Matthew underwent multiple surgeries at Children’s Hospital Colorado, then located at its former site in Denver. Led by orthopedic surgeon Mark Erickson, the team at the hospital worked to make sure Matthew wouldn’t be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

“Now, I can do just about anything with my leg. If he hadn’t done all of those surgeries, I’d be in a wheelchair and my leg would be up here,” said Matthew Roark, now 14, as he sat in the atrium at the Children’s Hospital Colorado site in Aurora. Donning a baseball cap, a T-shirt and shorts, he spoke casually about his lifetime history with the hospital and its staff of surgeons. “The only limitation I have on it now is that I can only bend it this high,” he added, lifting his left leg slightly.

Matthew Roark is happy to tell his story, and even happier to offer plenty of credit Erickson and his team of surgeons. An avid baseball player with plans to attend Regis Jesuit High School as a freshman next year, Matthew Roark makes an energetic and eloquent spokesman for the hospital. They’re qualities that made him an ideal candidate to serve as one of the hospital’s “ambassadors,” a group of former and current Children’s patients who appear at special events and fundraisers to share their story and represent Children’s.

Matthew Roark and six other Children’s ambassadors for 2012 continue a tradition that started in 1989, when hospital administrators started the program to highlight patients’ stories of perseverance and recovery. Every year, a group of six to eight former and current patients are nominated by doctors, nurses and other caregivers. The group appears at a wide range of functions, mingling with donors, helping move earth during groundbreaking ceremonies and even appearing with professional athletes for special events.

“I would tell you that every patient and their family sees it as an honor,” said Leslie McKay, the director of special events for the Children’s Hospital Colorado Foundation. “When I make the phone call, I encourage them to celebrate as a family. It is a very special role that they play.”

McKay, who’s directed the ambassador program from the past 18 years, said alums from the yearlong initiative keep in contact long after their duties are completed. When the hospital moved to Aurora in 2007, for example, they held a reunion for former ambassadors. According to McKay, many former patients said they had plans to enter the health care field.

“For kids who have been through quite a journey through Children’s, the opportunity to get up and share their story is cathartic and healing,” McKay said. “You discover that these children who have had chronic illness, serious medical conditions … are wise beyond their years. The value that they place on life is extraordinary. For anyone, whether they’ve had experiences at Children’s or not, it is relevant and meaningful to hear that from a child.”

The value goes both ways, according to Holly Smith. In 2007, her daughter Olivia was diagnosed with leukemia. After nine months of chemotherapy at the hospital, Olivia became seriously ill with a lung infection that landed her in the intensive care unit. After months in recovery, after the stroke that followed her infection, Holly Smith is on the mend, officially in remission and still receiving treatment. She was nominated as a 2012 ambassador last year, and has already mingled with Colorado Avalanche players during the hospital’s fashion show and helped break ground on a new facility.

“She got to walk the runway with Avalanche players. That was really fun. She attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Children’s Hospital Colorado South Campus in Highlands Ranch. She got to smile for some pictures and get out there with the shovel,” Holly Smith said. “We love the fact that we’re able to give back in this way and show what a success story she was. She’s able to be a face for Children’s.”

For patients like Olivia Smith, the responsibilities of being an ambassador come after months and years spent in treatment, long stretches of time getting to know the doctors and gaining a new, adopted family.

“It’s hard to put it into words. We spent four months where we lived there,” Holly Smith said. “They become a second family to you. They’re there during the most awful time in your life; they become the people that you rely on to help you get through and make the difficult decisions.”

For Matthew Roark, Children’s has been a constant part of his life. He’s undergone a total of 11 surgeries, most of which occurred before he was 3 years old. But the constant rounds of operations haven’t left any bitterness. Roark is quick to talk about his love for baseball and his plans to become a mechanical engineer before putting a positive spin on his experiences.

“I think sometimes of how much worse it could have been if Dr. Erickson had not been there, or had he not been able to perform the surgeries,” said Roark, who also volunteers at the hospital’s gift shop with his parents. “I wouldn’t get to do the things that I love. Baseball is the one thing I really like to do, and I wouldn’t get to play.”

It’s a message he’s not shy about repeating in his role as an ambassador.

Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at [email protected] or 720-449-9707