"He'll play you for money, you know? He just started playing yesterday, but he's pretty good!"
That was how I was introduced to Aaron Dias for the first time as his father, Chris, followed him around the pool table in Marnie's Lounge at Toronto's SickKids Hospital, wheeling Aaron's IV machine in front of him so his son could set up the next shot. As they walked past, I noticed two bottles of apple juice resting on the back of the IV. The kid had good taste, anyways.
Checking my pockets and finding nothing but a loonie, a subway token, chapstick and lint, I politely declined the offer - looking at Aaron, hooked up to machines as he was - it didn't look like he'd be hopping on the TTC today.
'For the best too,' I thought.
I've always been a sore loser when it comes to pool and I thought it might be frowned upon to snap a cue over my knee in a hospital. Instead I asked if I could have a quick chat with the pair once everything was wrapped up. They agreed and Aaron went back to running the table while he waited.
What Aaron was waiting for, the everything that needed wrapping up, was a visit to SickKids by the Toronto Raptors. The team - players, coaches and their support staff - were coming down to the hospital after morning practice with gifts and team gear to visit with the children and they were due to arrive any minute.
I was there to take pictures and talk to the team about why community outreach programs like this are important. Aaron was there to kill some time playing pool with his Dad and sister, Rachel, on the third day of his time as an inpatient at the hospital.
Aaron (background) makes a shot while his Dad and sister, Rachel, look on
“I got diagnosed with a ‘blood thing,’" he told me, "so I’ve been having appointments but I’m staying in the hospital, just started two days ago and I’m here for I think one or two months. Then I go home.”
Not long after our first exchange, the players arrived and the fun got started. The whole team showed up to play - Lowry, DeRozan, Carroll, Valančiūnas and the rest, Dwane Casey and his coaching staff, even the Raptor himself! As the team entered, single file and almost all of them having to duck through the door, the little lounge room began to fill up very quickly and I got to work. Dodging camera equipment and people holding microphones, I set about trying to find some solid angles for my photos. No easy task when half of your subjects are less than four feet tall and the other half could very well be over seven!
The team wasted no time getting into it with the kids. Some of the players sat down to a crafts table to indulge their creative sides and poke fun at their teammate, centre Jonas Valančiūnas, about what "Itty Bitty" thing he would be making this time, in reference to the title of his personal side business (not real, we know). Others circled the room, chatting with kids, parents and hospital staff and signing autographs, while still others engaged with the media and answered questions.
Some players, including DeMar DeRozan, decided to go toe to toe with Aaron on the pool table. I didn't see any money change hands in all the commotion, but who knows what happened!
DeMar DeRozan (left) shoots some pool, Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell look on, (rear) an MLSE intern who will hate me forever
From the moment the team showed up, it was clear just how much the kids were enjoying themselves, something that Helen Oppenheimer, a Child Life Specialist at SickKids says is really important to the hospital.
"There’s always a buzz around the hospital. It’s not every day that you get to meet your biggest idols and it gives a chance for our kids to be exactly that: to be kids. They get to be fans and children,rather than patients here at the hospital," Oppenheimer said. "It’s a huge motivator, even to just get them out of their rooms."
After about 45 minutes, the team split into smaller groups and went through the hospital visiting other patients, the ones who couldn't make it down to the lounge for the gathering. As the players, coaches, staff and media filed out of the lounge, I realized I had a problem. Aaron and his family were gone and I hand't had a chance to talk to them yet! Enter Oppenheimer and SickKids Senior Communications Specialist, Suzanne Gold. The pair made a quick phone call, locating the Dias family, and we set out for where Aaron's room is located. After clearing that I was okay to go in and visit, they accompanied me in, but not before asking me to leave my coat, bag and equipment outside and sanitize my hands. Aaron is in one of the hospital wards where germs are a big concern.
It's a typical hospital room. There's a large bed surrounded by instruments, incessantly whirring and beeping, displaying different vital information. It smells like the sanitizer I just used on my hands.
That 'blood thing' that Aaron mentioned, you see, the reason Aaron is in the hospital in the first place, is called Myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a bone marrow disorder.
Aaron's father, Chris, puts it in layman's terms for me: it's his body's inability to produce healthy blood.
That's why he is going to be staying at SickKids for a month or two. Aaron needs a bone marrow transplant, and is scheduled to undergo this procedure next week.
Listening to him talk about his time downstairs with the Raptors, though, if I wasn't standing in a hospital room I wouldn't have believed Aaron to be anything other than a happy, healthy kid - IV machine be damned.
“I didn’t know they were coming and it was very fun playing pool. I just started yesterday with Daddy," he said. "It was fun playing with them. I was surprised at how big they were.”
DeRozan going hard on the felt
On the wall in his room, Aaron has a collage of pictures of himself with players from the Toronto Maple Leafs, a souvenir of another time SickKids hosted a team, as well as with Coach Mike Babcock, who he met, through the hospital as well, after attending a Leafs game.
Of Babcock, Aaron laughed and said he was very much like a typical coach when they met.
"He opened the door and I was on the other end of the hallway. He’s like ‘Why are you so far away? Come here! Come see me! Look a man in the eyes when you shake his hand!’”
There isn't any fear in this kid, not in this moment, anyhow. There's just a young boy excitedly talking about some of his favourite experiences with people he looks up to. Something Chris Dias is very thankful for.
“I just commend the athletes and the coaches. They put their time into this. It makes such a difference for the kids and I have to admit, as a parent, it makes me feel great that the kids are being cared for in this kind of way and it really is meaningful. I think about the impact it’s had on Aaron: other times he’s met athletes through SickKids and today will be no different. He’s talking about it for days and weeks, even months afterwards and it’s turned him into a bigger fan. Now having been connected and engaged with them in that way today, I think he’s going to be a massive Raptors fan. His room at home is decked out with Leafs and his room here will be decked out with Raptors,” he said.
The benefits of these events aren't just for the kids, either.
"We’re delighted with the quality and the level of care that SickKids has provided and when you have things like this – when the athletes come in – it just makes it all the more meaningful. It distracts you from the difficulty of it and is rewarding in different ways,” Dias said.
That seemed to be the message of the day. The importance of these events doesn't really lie with the gifts the team brought - the gear, the autographs, the stuffed Raptor dolls - it's not even really about getting to meet all-star athletes. Not for them, really. Rather it lies in the fact that for even just a little bit, the kids get to be kids. They get to forget that they're in the hospital for about an hour and their families get to witness that happiness.
Just before leaving the family, I asked Aaron what the one thing he would want to ask the Raptors players he met would be. He didn't even hesitate before saying:
“What do you eat that makes you so big?”
I couldn't help but laugh and told him that I'd pass it along the next time I saw them. Thinking about it now, though, I think I'd rather wait a month or two and let him ask them himself.