It’s paralyzing when someone you know is diagnosed with a terminal disease. You instinctively want to reach out and do what you can, but with a diagnosis of cancer on the table, often even the most heartfelt gifts and thoughtful gestures don’t seem like enough.
That’s the dilemma students in the RN nursing program at Eastern Idaho Technical College found themselves in when they learned a classmate had been diagnosed with melanoma. It was late summer, August of 2012, and classes for the RN program had just begun when Darren Smith was told the mass on his leg was cancerous.
“It was his 45th birthday,” says classmate and friend Letty Sotello. “Everyone was in shock, but right away we started thinking of ways we could help.”
Most of the class had gone through the LPN program together before entering the RN program, so everyone knew Darren well and all wanted to help in any way they could. They thought of pooling money for a card and a gift, or buying restaurant gift certificates for Darren and his wife. Each new idea was a thoughtful one, but none seemed to sufficiently convey their support or level of concern.
Meanwhile, the class was assigned to do a leadership project as part of the nursing program. Darren was already spending time in the hospital for treatment and one of his classmates, Tyree McWilliams, served as his nurse. Working closely with Darren each day, Tyree got the notion to focus her leadership project on helping him. She knew a fun run would be an effective way to raise money, but the thought of organizing it on her own was overwhelming.
“I went to the instructor and asked if I could approach the class about teaming up to do the project as a group, and was told that if I could convince the class and the school board, then we could do it,” Tyree remembers.
Because of the red tape, the school board was a little more difficult to persuade, but the class was all on board immediately.
“Everyone wanted to be part of it,” Letty recalls. “Even those who had already committed to other projects wanted to be involved in some way.”
Originally they were told they’d be lucky to raise one to two thousand dollars at the most, but the idea grew and took on a life of its own. An online auction was added, and flyers were taken to community businesses to be posted alongside cans for donations. In the end, the class raised almost $20,000.
The class reached out to the EITEC Foundation for guidance, advice and sponsors for the fun run, but they mostly relied on experience from students who had participated in other fun runs, specifically color runs, to organize the event. Because the special chalk-like paint that’s used during color runs can be quite expensive, Chukk Nelson, another classmate, found a way to make it inexpensively.
“No one person was any more or less involved than anyone else,” Tyree says. “Everyone pulled together and wanted to help with anything that needed to be done. Darren’s sons even returned to Idaho Falls in the days before the fun run to help with the race.”
So, what kind of person inspires such strong support that a class and a good number of the community would mobilize to come to his aid? It would have to be someone who inspired and encouraged others by first showing the same thoughtfulness, sensitivity and care with which his classmates responded. By all accounts, Darren Smith was just that kind of person. The entire reason Darren was drawn to nursing was because he loved being a part of helping people.
“That’s just how he was,” Lettie remembers. ” He cared about keeping others safe and sharing his knowledge with everyone. He cared so much about people in general.”
With four children, Benton, 23, Haden, 19, Katie, 7, and Maddie, 20 months, Darren already had personal experience caring for others. His kind, strong nature extended his compassion far beyond the boundaries of his family. It was his positive attitude, though, that Darren’s wife, Jana, points to as the primary trait that sustained them both during the time after his diagnosis.
“We never thought ‘what if?’,” Jana says. “Darren always kept a positive attitude and had the perspective that, no matter what we were going through, there was always someone else who was worse off. He said when hard times hit you can either crawl in a hole or you can get up, brush yourself off and move forward.”
Darren enjoyed learning and valued education. He actually had a degree in business before he began studying nursing but, because he wanted to help people, he went back to school for his nursing degree. The program had such an impact on Darren that he encouraged his younger brother, Jordan, to study nursing, too. As it turned out, going through school together benefitted the brothers in ways they could never have foreseen.
With an eight-year difference between them, the program was an opportunity for Darren and Jordan to spend time together doing something that interested them both. They drew closer and were able to support each other, too. Jordan related to Jana that he wouldn’t have made it as far as he did in the program if it weren’t for Darren.
The training and education they received prepared both brothers for the medical crisis that was to come. Becoming a nurse helped Darren better understand what he was going through. Because of his training, Jordan, who only lives a block and a half from Darren and Jana, was able to be extremely involved in his brother’s care.
By the day of the race, Darren’s condition had deteriorated. He had wanted to host the ceremony for the fun run, but was too ill to attend. However, Jana, Katie and Maddie were able to be there to represent Darren, sporting the white “Give a Nurse a Hand” t-shirts that had been printed with Darren’s handprint for the occasion. Jana brought along her cell phone and passed it around to spectators and some of the over 400 participants so they could speak with Darren, allowing him to take part in the festivities from his hospice bed.
It was a devastating blow for the class when Darren passed away only 11 days after the fun run on June 12, 2012. He had been a big part of everyone’s lives, and not just as a friend who had a terminal disease. Darren was the positive, upbeat guy who always gave support, encouragement and help whenever they needed it. He was the guy who valued education and advocated for others to pursue it along with their dreams. He was a friend, a son, a brother, a husband and a father who cared with every cell of his body, who loved with all he had and who was loved back in equal measure.
The void left by someone like Darren Smith is a large one that never fully heals, even with time. Family, friends and classmates still tear up when talking about him. Jana says her girls are young enough now that they don’t quite understand.
“Katie has Down Syndrome and just knows that daddy is in Heaven, and Maddie isn’t old enough to even remember Darren,” she says sadly. “But there are plenty of people around who will remind her every day what an extraordinary guy her daddy was.”
That much is obvious in the efforts of Darren’s classmates. All Darren’s children have to do is browse the “Give a Nurse a Hand” Facebook page to get a glimpse of how deeply their dad touched the lives of others. Chronicling the race, the auction and the preparation that went into pulling it all off, it’s a testament to a wonderful man as well as to what can be accomplished when you care about someone.