BEACHWOOD, Ohio -- The kids never knew that Beth Ray was facing her own life-threatening medical challenges for the 34 years she cared from them as a child life specialist at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital.
The parents wouldn't have known, either, about her diabetes, diagnosed at age 10, and the toll it took on her body. Two kidney transplants and a new pancreas. They might not have known that the anti-rejection drugs made her susceptible to skin cancer, which resulted in 30-plus lesions being removed from her face.
Her smile outshined it all. A smile that said, "It's OK, child, you are in good hands." A smile that softened the harsh lights of an operating room or an intensive care unit. A smile that told terrified parents, "Your baby is in the best possible hands right now." Or, when needed, a smile that said, "I feel your pain. It's OK to cry."
Beth Ray, an Akron native who graduated from Cuyahoga Falls High and the University of Akron (Class of 1984), spent her life bringing comfort to sick children and their families. She died March 17, leaving behind her husband and grown daughter, tons of friends and admiring co-workers, and scores of children and families whose lives she impacted. She was 66 and due to retire next month.
Many of those whose lives she touched will gather Sunday afternoon at Nighttown in Cleveland Heights to share memories, scripture and song, and to honor a woman whose work any parent of a sick child knows is a manifestation of all that is good in this world.
"What a ray of light she was, a lot of people were touched by her," said her husband of 22 years, Michael Miller, who said he will remember always her "world famous smile," the one that drew him immediately to her at a house party thrown by friends in 1991. She asked him to dance. He was not a dancer. But he didn't want to blow this chance.
"She took my hand she coaxed me onto the middle of the floor and she taught me how to jitterbug," he said. "And we continued to jitterbug. We jitterbugged in the kitchen while we were cooking."
Beth took her work home with her like everyone does. Some days were tough. When a child dies, that stays with you. But she persevered, her husband said, and continued to care for the sickest of kids with the most hopeful of attitudes.
"These child life specialists, that department, they're a phenomenal group, including Beth. They give of themselves in situations where I know I would have great trouble making it through, having to deal with sick and dying kids," Miller said. "It takes a special kind of person to help comfort them and their siblings and parents as well.
"Beth got a great deal of fulfillment from that job and I think that's part of how she kept going herself, hard as it was to face her own illness, these kids faced so much more."
Barb Nalette was a young mom with a sick child when she first encountered Beth in the late 1980s. One-year-old Stephen had a brain tumor, and her husband Paul would stay with him overnight while she stayed home with her daughter. He'd leave for work and she'd arrive at the hospital a short time later.
"One morning, I got to the hospital and my son wasn't there and of course I was frantic. They told me he was moved to a regular floor," she said. "I found his room and walked in and there was Beth. I think she could see the look on my face. She was leaning over my son's crib and rubbing his leg, and she looked up at me -- and she was the sweetest looking person, this cherub-like face -- and she looked at me and said, 'Hi, I'm just getting to know your son.'"
Stephen was moved to a different floor for chemotherapy. He died in 1990. But that one moment endures.
"I only have four years of memories of him and moments like that, when he was at peace, are so precious," she said.
In 1993, Nalette applied for a job at Rainbow. She got it. Her assignment? Serve as an assistant to Beth Ray.
"When I saw her face, I remembered, and tears came to my eyes," said Nalette, who now is head of volunteer services at UH.
Beth was good friends with former Plain Dealer columnist Regina Brett, who wrote about her second kidney transplant in 2002. "No one said it, but we all feared this Christmas might be her last," Brett wrote. Instead, Ray got a second kidney transplant and a pancreas that extended her life.
That extension allowed her to live to take care of many more children, preparing them for procedures and surgeries using the the "Comfort Measures" model that included "Family Centered Care" and "Relationship Based Care" that made treatment for each child individual. The approach included families, employed stuffed animals and coloring books, included a lot of listening and advocating to make the experience less clinical and, ultimately, more successful. For her last 15 years, she worked exclusively in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
She lived to take more walks through the Cleveland Metroparks (though as her vision began to worsen in her final year, she counted on Michael to describe what they were seeing in vivid detail). She loved nature, loved to walk, loved to listen in the summer to the crickets' cacophony, a simple sound that brought her joy.
She lived to love her husband and her daughter, Michaela, to nourish longtime friendships and start new ones. She lived to dig more jazz. She lived to find joy in the little things some of us might walk right past.
Her final day was, her husband said, perfect. She's developed heart issues in recent months, and she'd been hospitalized several times. But doctors deemed it safe for her to travel and she embarked on a bucket list trip to Mexico, where her cousin lives. Her co-worker Carol Van Diest accompanied her. She died that night in her cousin's home of a heart attack.
"She was not a lukewarm person," said Van Diest. "She was filled with passion and enthusiasm for even the smallest things. She had early adventures in her life and wanted one more even though every day was an adventure no matter how big or how small. She cared desperately for the people in her life and took great care of them with unconditional love, just as she cared for the children who came to Rainbow."
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Publish date : 2018-04-08 10:08:32