CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - Between a Thursday morning practice as part of their preparation to play Duke on Saturday and a free afternoon to celebrate Thanksgiving with their families, a group of North Carolina football players made a significant detour. UNC Hospitals sits barely farther than a solid punt from the front door of Kenan Football Center, but it might as well be a world away, and that's as true at the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center as much as it is anywhere in the hospital.
"The injuries are so tragic and the circumstances are so difficult and many times people are alone and isolated," said Dr. Bruce Cairns, the Burn Center's director. "With a burn injury that's even more so with any other condition because it changes the way they look, it changes the way they feel. To have these people that we all watch on television and know work so hard and are so motivated as athletes to come and say, 'We're here to see you, we want to talk to you, we want to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving '... It's just remarkable."
The benefits went both ways on Thursday, as eight Tar Heel football players - Eric Albright, Nick Appel, Allen Champagne, John Ferranto, Jarrod James, Dan Mastromatteo, Shakeel Rashad and Nathan Staub - followed up with a friend they'd made last week when they visited the Burn Center as part of a annual event. Tar Heel student-athletes visit the UNC Jaycees Burn Center at least once a year in an opportunity that developed based on a partnership between UNC Athletics, Touchstone Energy and the North Carolina Electric Membership Corporation, and the Burn Center.
During last Friday's visit, which included more than 30 Carolina student-athletes from a wide range of sports, several of the football players visited with a particular patient, a soldier who had been stationed at Ft. Bragg and hadn't had many visitors. "Nathan Staub and Eric Albright were the ones who had the idea to come back after last Friday," said Champagne, a sophomore defensive lineman from Montreal, Quebec, Canada. "It was a chance for us to show some love and support and show these guys that we're thankful for them and to stay strong and keep fighting."
So the players returned to visit him Thursday, packing into the hospital room to talk football and sign a poster. But they didn't stop there. They visited other rooms, met and chatted with patients in the hallways, and made a round through the unit where the most critical patients are housed, autographing pillowcases along the way.
"I'm still wrapping my brain around how excited I am to see these people and see that we can help put a smile on their face," said James, a sophomore center from Goldsboro, N.C. "They've come out of terrible accidents. To see them have a smile on their face for the time they see us, and the time we get to see them, it's priceless."
Director of Athletics Bubba Cunningham and two of his children joined the players for their Thanksgiving visit. "It really impressed me that they were so thoughtful they wanted to come back after last week's visit," Cunningham said. "I thought I'd just like to see them interact with the patients. What a neat thing this has been."
Memories of the visit lingered after the players had gone off to enjoy Thanksgiving with their families (or with teammates' families, for those who live farther away) before reporting back to campus Thursday night.
"The impact is so much more than the visit itself," Cairns said. "It's a reflection that the patients have value and worth. We talk a lot about how we want to improve patient care and improve outcomes, but how the patients feel about themselves is perhaps one of the most important factors.
"To take the time out of their day to come and visit (last week), that's one thing - that's impressive enough. But then to spontaneously say 'Let's come back again and see people on a holiday.' Nobody wants to be in the hospital on a holiday ... except them, which makes all of us feel better about who we are and what we're doing. It just means the world to all of us."
After the players had left on Thursday, a patient spoke of how much he enjoyed the visit. A nurse said to him, "It's good to see you smile."
"Yeah," he replied. "I haven't been feeling so great lately. But I feel a lot better now."