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Caregiving: Athletes as caregivers

By ALEX CUKAN, UPI Health Correspondent   |   March 16, 2006 at 1:57 PM
ALBANY, N.Y., March 16 (UPI) -- (Part 2 of 3). When Rob Ray was a Buffalo Sabre he was known as one of the toughest NHL hockey players of the 1990s, combining physical play with a lethal fighting ability. So some might not expect him to be a caregiver.

Most professional athletes support charities, many focusing on sick children, but some not only provide companionship and non-medical services to sick children, they become friends with the patients and their families.

In his more than 15-year career with the Sabres, Ray was active in a number of charities, and I don't think there was a major fundraiser in Buffalo, N.Y., that he did not attend.

During the years that Ray was accumulating 3,207 career penalty minutes -- the sixth highest in NHL history -- Ray was also visiting and befriending children with cancer and other diseases at Women & Children's Hospital of Buffalo.

Ray may be able to bench-press Pittsburgh -- he's certainly the strongest person I've ever met -- but he's also one of the most caring people I've known because he's not afraid of being there for the long haul for someone seriously ill.

Always ready with a joke, always ready to ease the tension, Ray was very popular and many sought his attention, but he was generous with his time.

In 1999 Ray was awarded the King Clancy Memorial Trophy for the player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution in his community. While some of Ray's contributions have been recognized, much of what he did has not.

Caregiving interviewed Ray in the off-season of 1998, and if other Sabres were in town that summer day, none was in the Sabres locker room where Ray had been lifting free weights. After the interview Ray mentioned his house guest, a Russian teenager signed by the Sabres whom he was teaching English, taking to the mall to buy clothes and explaining about America.

Another of Ray's friends was Stone, a child who spent more than half of his life fighting PNET -- primitive neuroectodermal tumor, a highly aggressive brain tumor.

Stone's life ended shortly after he turned 4, but in his memory, the Women & Children's Hospital of Buffalo Foundation created Stone's Buddies so patients and their families could draw strength from one another through activities, events, correspondence and friendship.

"Rob Ray was one of Stone's friends and he was there when Stone's Buddies was formed," John Moscato, spokesman for Women & Children's Hospital, told Caregiving.

"We've been lucky -- a lot of players from the Sabres and the Buffalo Bills have not only been supportive in helping raise money for the yearly Variety Telethon and by attending events and visiting patients, but some like Rob, Mike Peca, Pat LaFontaine and Daniel Briere of the Sabres and Takeo Spikes of the Bills really stand out and go the extra mile."

It's not unusual for players to come over during the holidays -- mostly they come together -- but a few arrange on their own to spend time with the patients, according to Moscato.

"For example, when Dan Briere was recently injured he arranged to watch a Sabres game on TV with some of the children," Moscato said. "Pat LaFontaine was a frequent visitor before he was injured and after he was injured and now that he is retired from hockey and living on Long Island, he still visits the patients whenever he is in town, which is several times each year."

LaFontaine, a native of St. Louis, played as a center for the New York Islanders 1983-1991, Buffalo Sabres 1991-1997 and New York Rangers 1997-1998.

A prolific scorer in junior hockey, he exploded offensively in the 1992-93 season with a personal-best and team-record 148 points -- 53 goals and 95 assists. He had several stellar years as a Sabre, but in the 1996-97 season he suffered a hit to the head that knocked him unconscious and caused post-concussion syndrome.

While in Buffalo, LaFontaine dedicated much of his off-ice time to Women & Children's Hospital of Buffalo.

"Being with these kids -- knowing their smiles, their pain and their courage -- changed my life and taught me about life and death," LaFontaine said. "These children left me with a simple reality: We don't always have much control over what happens to us, but we do have a choice in how we respond."

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Alex Cukan is an award-winning journalist, but she always has considered caregiving her primary job. UPI welcomes comments and questions about this column. E-mail: consumerhealth@upi.com

© 2006 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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