By Robert Tomlinson
KALAMAZOO — Reaching the age of 40 is a milestone for many people in their lives.
However, for one local woman, it is even more significant of an achievement. One that is worthy enough of giving back to the hospital that has made that 40th birthday possible.
On Thursday, Feb. 23, over 800 get-well-soon cards and cards of support handmade by children in Three Rivers Community Schools were dropped off at Bronson Hospital’s pediatric unit in Kalamazoo. The person behind the drop-off? Newly-turned 40-year-old Lindsey Gray.
The significance of age 40 for Gray, a Three Rivers resident who works in the insurance industry, is that she was born with a condition called cystic fibrosis. Doctors told her parents that because of the disease, which can severely damage the lungs, digestive tract and other organs, she wouldn’t make it to age 5.
“When I was born, the doctors told them I would live to be 5. They never necessarily told me that, but I knew growing up I was a little bit different, with medications and treatments,” Gray said.
“To the normal eye, I would look normal. Unless they knew I was sick or knew about the disease, it’s kind of hidden.”
Most of the issues Gray said she had with the disease were related more to her digestive tract rather than her lungs. However, that didn’t stop her and her parents from getting the medication and treatments necessary to keep her going, admitting she has a bit of “stubbornness” as well to keep going.
“I have a little bit of a stubbornness to me, and I think it’s really pushed me to do all I can do,” Gray said.
To this day, Gray still sees specialists about once every three months, and has been able to manage her condition with medication to maintain a normal life. Sometimes she has to go to the hospital, specifically Bronson Hospital, for treatment or surgery related to cystic fibrosis, and she said she would receive cards and well-wishes every time she went.
“I received cards every time, from the time I was a young age, up through now. I just received a card from someone the other day, because I was in the hospital,” Gray said. “Every time I was in the hospital, I would receive cards, my sisters and brothers would color me pictures and put four quarters in it.”
Gray said she kept every single card she received from all of her hospital stays, and thought to herself, “That’s what I want to give to the kids.”
Gray said she started the process of putting together the project on Feb. 4, messaging many of the teacher friends she knew, including Sheena McClain at Andrews Elementary and district art teacher Gretchen Knowlton.
“I messaged people that I knew at the schools, and said, hey, I’ve had this plan, can you guys do something,” Gray said. “They had all worked together, they sent emails to all the teachers, then came up with this.”
Gray said she also reached out to the pediatric unit at Bronson a few months prior to let them know of her plan, and later reached out to coordinate the card delivery.
McClain, in an email Tuesday, said she thought it was a “wonderful idea” for her first-grade classroom when she heard about it at the beginning of February.
“Turning 40 is a huge milestone that many people may take for granted. I have a sister-in-law with cystic fibrosis so it is something that is near and dear to my heart. I wanted to do what I could to help Lindsey celebrate the milestone,” McClain said. She explained that during the month of February, the school has an anonymous “kindness spy” that sends messages to students to get them to spread kindness, and the cards were right up that alley.
“Making these cards fit perfectly with spreading kindness and it was a mission that our kindness spy sent to students to complete,” McClain said. “When I explained the activity to my group of first graders, they were very excited to help spread kindness to children in the hospital. Little gestures like receiving a homemade card can brighten up someone’s day and help them feel happiness in an otherwise sad time.”
Over the next few weeks, up until the day before the delivery to Bronson, students at all of the schools in Three Rivers, including Three Rivers Middle School and Three Rivers High School, along with Country Kids Preschool, created cards of all shapes and sizes to be delivered to Bronson Hospital. Some wrote poems, some had jokes in them, but all of them gave encouragement to whoever would receive the cards. The kids at Country Kids even made a small number of bracelets to be given out as well to the kids.
Gray said she was a bit overwhelmed by the amount of cards the students were able to create.
“I read through every single one of them, and it was the most touching experience I’ve ever had,” Gray said. “Sometimes with life, I think nowadays, people aren’t very touching or they don’t really worry about others. I wanted the kids to have an experience where they said, look to somebody else and give. And these kids, from the youngest ages to the high school students, were amazing.”
The cards were dropped off in the lobby of Bronson’s Gilmore Center for Health Education on Feb. 23, the day of Gray’s 40th birthday, where they were given to Bronson staff. Along for the delivery were Gray’s mother, her sister-in-law, and niece.
Her mother, Michele Schiedel, said she was proud of her daughter for turning 40 and for giving back with the cards.
“I’m glad it makes her happy, and I’m glad she’s happy about it,” Schiedel said.
Brooke Heck, a child life specialist at Bronson, said the cards will be significant for children who are going through treatment at the hospital.
“It’s always nice to know when other people are thinking about the kids in the hospital, and it can be really nice for kids to know that other kids are thinking of them during this time, too,” Heck said. “Kids always love mail; mail doesn’t come to the hospital all that often, so it’s kind of fun to create mail that gets delivered to the rooms.”
Heck added that because of the volume of cards, the hospital will be able to share them with other departments that work with pediatric patients, such as the outpatient and emergency areas.
Gray said her next life goal is to hopefully live to see her stepson have a child so she can be a grandparent, but for now, she said reaching 40 is a “dream come true,” and helping to give back to the hospital that helped her was a blessing.
“Sometimes you just have to think outside the box you’re in, and whether that’s helping kids in the hospital to just helping a friend in need, this is just dear to my heart, because I know the impact it gave me, and I just want them to understand how much one simple card could actually do for someone,” Gray said.
Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 or firstname.lastname@example.org.