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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Salem youth loses struggle with cancer

Thursday, September 15, 2005

On a sunny April day earlier this year Dennis Smith, a sixth-grade Salem Elementary School student with brain cancer, went for a ride in an Air Evac helicopter.

The ride had nothing to do with Smith's condition -- it was just something he dreamed of doing. After the ride the one thing Dennis didn't want to do was return to class.

"Daddy, I don't want to go to band today," Dennis told his father with a grin on his face.

Smith, a 12-year-old Salem resident who had been battling medulloblastoma since 2001, died at his home Sept. 10.

A sobbing crowd of mourners filled the Barker Funeral Home in Salem Sept. 13 to pay their final respects to the boy who enjoyed playing with his friends, liked to eat salisbury steak and loved playing computer games with his father, Tony Smith.

"The only thing he was worried about was whether he would miss his friends in heaven," said Pastor Leon Graves. "He anticipated his own death and was at peace with it."

Smith's mother, Kay Smith, said the weeks leading up to her son's death were difficult.

"I would just sit around and cry and Dennis would ask me 'What are you crying for, momma? I'm going to heaven to be with Jesus. What's wrong with that?'"

Kay Smith said her son's passing caused overwhelming sorrow, but she knows he is at peace.

"He fought long and he fought hard and now the fight's over," Kay Smith said as tears streamed from her face.

As Graves, Kay Smith, and Salem Elementary School teacher Sandy Massey spoke, several of Smith's classmates broke into tears.

In 2001 Smith was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, the most common form of brain cancer in children.

According to the American Cancer Society male children ages 3 to 8 have the highest risk for developing the disease. Scientists don't know what causes the disease.

Symptoms of the disease include headaches, blurred vision, vomiting and prolonged bouts of nausea. Tony Smith said his son suffered from severe headaches prior to his diagnosis.

Doctors treated Smith's tumor and his cancer went into remission. Less than a year later three new tumors were found in the back of Smith's cranium.

Michele Sharp, a home health nurse with the Fulton County Health Department, said the tumors were unresponsive to chemotherapy or radiation treatment.

Sharp said Smith's condition worsened in the weeks leading up to his death. She said Smith's parents and his older brother, Keith Smith, were present when he died.

Despite his condition, Smith remained upbeat. Just weeks prior to his death, Smith and his father found two turtles, but didn't name them, Graves said.

"Why should I name them (the turtles)," a laughing Smith said. "They can't hear anyway."

The Salem School District cancelled classes the day of Smith's funeral so students and teachers could attend the service.

Salem Superintendent Ken Rich said the faculty and students are consumed with grief.

"He was a great kid and great student," Rich said. "Our hearts and prayers go out his family."

Rich said Smith was enrolled as a seventh-grader but had not attended class this year. Smith missed multiple days of school while receiving treatments over the years, but always maintained excellent grades, he said.

Last year Smith said he looked forward to middle school.

"It will be cool to have different teachers and different classes," Smith said. "Losing recess kind of stinks."

Graves, who serves as the pastor at First Missionary Baptist Church in Salem, said few people are as prepared for death as Smith was.

"If a person can live 12 years the way they should, and make a difference in other people's lives, they've lived a full life," Graves said. "There are people who live to be 80 who never do anything for anybody else."

Graves said he knew Smith most of his short life. He said the two shared a tight bond after Smith's diagnosis.

Kay Smith said she appreciates the community support her son and family received throughout her son's illness.

"I can never repay the kindness that has been shown to me," Kay Smith said. "This small town cares."

Graves said Smith always thought of others before he thought of himself.

Before he climbed into that helicopter last April he asked the pilot if a friend, Rocky, could join them.

The pilot told Smith his friend couldn't ride with them because he needed a parental consent form to fly with him.

"Are you scared to go by yourself?" Sharp asked Smith at the time. "No. Nothing scares me very much," he replied. "I just wanted my friend to go with me."

Smith was buried at Smyers Cemetery in Pleasant Grove. He was preceded in death by his paternal grandfather, Randolph Smith.

Besides his parents and brother, survivors include his paternal grandmother, Lynda Smith, and maternal grandparents, Jim and Sharon Newton.

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