'We knew it could be cancer and that survival was unlikely'

For Tom Smith, Ph.D., MUSC became more than an employer after his daugther's birth. From her earliest months, Perry made a growling sound. Smith and his wife, MUSC cardiovascular intensive-care unit nurse Ellie Smith, called her “Perry Bear.” The growl seemed like a normal baby noise, until 3-month-old Perry spent all of Christmas Eve inconsolable while visiting family in Georgetown.

After an emergency room visit, the Smiths brought Perry home, their fears allayed as new parent jitters. But Perry’s fits began again a few days later.

Perry Smith/photo provided. 

This time they brought her to the MUSC Pediatric Primary Care clinic, where one resident felt certain that an underlying medical issue caused Perry’s restlessness. The Smiths endured three days of testing, where doctors eventually found a mass in their baby’s brain.

“We knew it could be cancer and that survival was unlikely,” Smith said. Doctors suspected the tumor grew fast, since it already outsized a golf ball in a head only about 10 times larger. They decided to remove as much as they could and then send samples for analysis.

“You think it’s either death or healing,” Smith said, “but there’s a third path of long-term medical care.”

That has been Perry’s path. Her samples tested negative for cancer, and she eventually was diagnosed with a hypothalamus hamartoma, a rare but benign growth that can cause seizures, cognitive and mood problems and early puberty.

Perry learned to walk at 3 years old, after her baby brother. She experienced delayed speech. And because she experienced strokes as a baby, her right leg and hand are partially paralyzed.  

She spent two months of the first year of her life in the hospital. Now 7 years old, she still has eight medical appointments each week, on average, primarily through MUSC.

Tom and Ellie Smith with their children Whit and Perry/Photo provided.

Because of his family’s experiences, Smith supports the Yearly Employee Support (YES) Campaign. He gives to a variety of funds annually – pediatric neurosciences and brain tumor research, funds that support play as therapy for children, even the College of Pharmacy Building Fund out of gratitude for the pharmacists who always wave to his daughter in the hospital.

Smith, chairman of Academic Affairs Faculty at MUSC, also serves as associate director at the Center for Academic Excellence/Writing, where he helps people at MUSC with learning, writing and test-taking. He always enjoyed a role helping students and employees on campus, he said, but now his contributions feel personal.

The YES Campaign began in 1985 as a way to provide an extra boost for scholarships, research and patient-care programs. In 2017 alone MUSC employees donated nearly $437,000 for more than 440 funds, according to Whitney McLuen, who spearheads the YES Campaign.

“Every spring we ask our colleagues to think about the areas of MUSC that inspire them and then to consider the impact their personal support can make,” she said. “Through their contributions, we’re able to support projects that otherwise would go unfunded, and those projects are ultimately what set us apart as an institution and as a culture.”

For Smith, participating in the YES Campaign gives him the chance to show colleagues across campus how much he appreciates their work.

“It’s awkward trying to say thank you in the hallway,” Smith said. “This is an easy way to express gratitude.”