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Inside the Bills: Children's Hospital visit puts things in perspective for McDermott

Jay Skurski

Elizabeth Bova admits her Buffalo Bills fandom waned when she moved away from Western New York to Texas.

She’s back home now, though, and after a recent interaction with head coach Sean McDermott, Bova will be rooting for the Bills more than ever this fall. McDermott and his wife, Jamie, paid a visit to John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital earlier this month. It was there they met Bova, whose 13-year-old daughter Zoe Ditto was in the hospital to receive a second round of immunotherapy to treat acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

“When we’re in the hospital, every day is the same. It’s like Groundhog Day,” Bova said. “The challenges are there, but we usually make it through them.”

As Bova was talking with a nurse outside her daughter’s room, the McDermotts arrived.

“I had to ask, who’s that? It didn’t hit me that it was the Buffalo Bills’ coach,” Bova said.

After meeting the coach and his wife, Bova invited them in to meet Zoe.

“The kids love visitors,” she said. “If it puts a smile on their face for even a second, it’s priceless. They just love the company, because you can’t get a lot of it usually in the hospital.”

Sean and Jamie paid their first visit to Children’s last spring, a few months after arriving in Buffalo. They returned this year, complete with a wagon full of hats, teddy bears and other Bills gifts, including handmade blankets made by members of the team’s women’s association.

“I believe that to those whom much has been given, much is expected,” McDermott said. “Listen, I've been very fortunate in my life. I've got a platform to do the right thing. Not that I'm perfect. I'm not. I'm far from it, but I have been so blessed in my life. I feel like if there's anything that I can do just to try and help someone smile a little bit, then that's the least I can do. And my wife as well.”

The McDermotts hope to make the hospital visit an annual occurrence.

“I leave there feeling like I've been given so much more than I gave,” Sean said. “That's probably unfair, but to see the children and the families, and not just the moms and dads, but the aunts and uncles and grandparents that are affected by it. I remember when we pulled up, there was a mom outside who said, ‘my daughter is upstairs.’ We made it a point to go see her, but she was then going off to tend to her other children. It's not just the child who's in the hospital, it's so much wider than that.

“As I've gotten older, you learn a little bit more about yourself through the years, and this is definitely a trip that I'm going to try and do every offseason.”

Bova was blown away by her daughter’s reaction to the McDermotts’ visit.

“I gave him a hug at the end, and I was crying,” she said. “I really think when they do stuff like this, it really does make a difference and an impact on these kids. Even though Zoe’s nonverbal, she just knows when somebody comes in the room, the spirit of that person. She had a great experience. They're really good people. They have a good spirit and good souls. You can just tell.”

Bova hopes to one day write a book about her daughter’s journey. She’s even got the title picked out: “The 3 Miracles of Zoe.”

When she was born prematurely at 30 weeks, Zoe weighed just 2 pounds. The day after she was born, a team of doctors told Bova her daughter had all the markers of Down syndrome. Shortly after birth, she was down to 1.25 pounds and clinging to life.

“At that point it did not matter. She was our baby and we would love her no matter what challenges we faced with her health,” Bova said.

Zoe spent three months in the neonatal intensive care unit, then at five months old needed open-heart surgery to repair three holes. Bova had her daughter baptized before surgery.

“I never doubted that she would make it, but it was something I felt I had to do,” she said.

On Jan. 16, 2009, Zoe was diagnosed with cancer. Intense treatments lasted more than two years and successfully cleared her bone marrow. Upon getting a clean bill of health, the family moved back to Buffalo in 2011.

On Jan. 26 of this year, Bova took Zoe to the emergency room for what she thought might be pneumonia. Unfortunately, Zoe’s cancer had relapsed.

After months of chemotherapy and two rounds of immunotherapy, Zoe is 100 percent in remission, but in need of a bone marrow transplant. A donor match has been found, and that surgery will take place next month.

Bova has had to take an unpaid leave of absence from her job with the Frontier Central School District, but through it all has maintained an optimistic outlook.

“No matter how difficult it's been for her, I've always remained positive,” she said. “I've always told anybody who comes in that room, don't cry, don't sob. When you come in this room, you bring love and happiness and that's it.”

Sean and Jamie fed right into that environment.

“Like most of the children there, Zoe had such a good spirit and great smile,” he said. “That's the thing that I love the most. The smiles that are on the children's faces in there. It's incredible. It brightens my day. It gives me energy. We talk a lot in this building about juice, you know, and those kids down there have juice, even though you understand why maybe they wouldn't. But they give me a lot of juice, and I love it.”

For obvious reasons, visiting a pediatric hospital is not easy. That's true even for Bova, who has spent more time in one than she ever hoped to.

"Walking in there and seeing kids like that, is very difficult.," she said. "I can't imagine someone coming from the outside. Seeing it, experiencing it, and being touched by it. Because it is a difficult situation. You're seeing these kids at their sickest."

On the drive home and later that night, McDermott and his wife reflected on what they took away from the visit.

“Being grateful. Having that type of mindset,” Sean said. “Being appreciative of being able to wake up and be healthy, No. 1. My family. My children. Putting things in proper perspective, where things we're dealing with, compared to what they're dealing with, don't even compare.

“I think it's just a good reminder at the right time in the offseason to don't forget where you came from, what got you here, and how blessed you are to be in this position.”

Alexander hosting charity event

Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander will host Buffalo's Bowling Benefit at noon on June 9 at Strikers Lanes in West Seneca. The event will benefit Alexander's ACES Foundation, specifically the ACES ACCESS initiative, which is a program focused on collaboration and relationship building with the South Park High School football team and the Belle Center.

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