Miami here I come!
Most of us knew him simply as Allan, the strapping Family Promise van driver on whom everyone relied, especially the program’s homeless families and its network volunteers.
Allan Smith had a smile for everyone and every occasion. He could carry a bed under one arm and three bags of clothes with the other, all while leading families into a new congregation on Sunday evenings like Moses headed for the Promised Land.
If a volunteer would offer to help with the load, he’d say, “It’s OK. I got it.’’
But then, suddenly, this man who could do almost everything himself could do almost nothing for himself. The one whose vocation was to help others was the one who needed help.
He began to realize something was wrong with his stomach in May of 2016. He couldn’t keep anything down. He felt worse and worse. Finally, after he was admitted to Englewood Hospital, he got the diagnosis.
Gastric cancer—stage 4, on a scale of 4.
He heard the words, but couldn’t process their meaning. The doctor kept talking, but Allan wasn’t really listening. When the news finally did sink it, it seemed like a death sentence. “I didn’t have any hope,’’ he’d recall. “I felt like my life was going to be over.’’ He was 46.
His ordeal had only begun. His doctor recommended a course of intensive chemotherapy infusion, followed by surgery to remove a tumor (and half his stomach), followed by another course of chemo.
Allan’s stomach was so sensitive he could neither sleep on his side nor take common pain relievers. He had to be fed through a tube; mealtime, once a pleasure, became a slow, arduous process. He lost about 100 pounds, leaving him a spindly 122 pounds on a 6-foot-2-inch frame. He was so weak he couldn’t even walk.
The reversal of how things had been—how they were supposed to be—hit him hardest when he was pushed around in a wheelchair by his own mother.
Responsibilities at home in Teaneck, down to walking the dog, fell on his wife Jocelyn. And he could see the toll that worry was taking on her.
She and other family members supported him, as did the Family Promise staff. Network volunteers sent messages of encouragement. The doctors and nurses were great; everyone at Englewood seemed to know his name.
But the psychological pain was intense. “I never thought I’d have to depend on other people to take care of me like that,’’ he’d say later. “If I had a problem, I’d always take care of it myself. The last thing I’d do is ask for help.’’
Even with all the support, he was lonely, as if in his own nightmare. In the hospital, he’d never felt so alone. And he faced the question of anyone who’s ever been in his spot: “Why me?”
Today, he still feels anxious, shaken by his bout with cancer. But he’s eating on his own again—he’s gained back 35 pounds, despite being restricted to small portions and banned from sweets, including chocolate—and has returned to work at Family Promise.
“I want to thank all the volunteers who sent me messages,’’ he says. “They gave me strength. I don’t know a lot of names, but I want them to know what they meant.’’
He says he still doesn’t know why he had to suffer, but wants to encourage others facing the same kind of challenge. So he tries to spread the word. He’s featured in this video by Englewood Health, which operates Englewood Hospital. And he was shocked by the American Cancer Society which arranged a surprise meeting with Quinnen Williams, a defensive lineman for his beloved New York Jets. Watch the surprise unfold here.
There, Allan got a surprise gift—two tickets to the Super Bowl in Miami. Later, in an interview with the NFL Network, Williams talked about Allan’s struggles, and said, “He’s stronger than I am.’’ This from a man who stands 6 feet 3 inches, weighs 303 pounds, and can run 40 yards in under 5 seconds.
When he looks back, Allan suspects his illness had a purpose—“to put light on something that I’d never thought about…people being there for you.’’
Here’s his advice to others who find themselves in a similar predicament: Be strong, have faith, and stay positive. “You think you won’t be able to survive,’’ he says, “but you can. Look at the light at the end of the tunnel, because there is a light. I always knew there was a light, but I never knew how bright it can be.’’
By Rick Hampson