TACOMA, Wash. - Seven-year-old Ollie Strode spends every day sharing love with a big smile on his face. On Valentine’s Day, he and his family like to do something extra special to warm the hearts of others.
"Because it’s just what we do! It’s just what we do," said Ollie with a dimply smile.
He visits the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma. For the past six years, he delivers heart-shaped balloons to nurses and kids receiving care. It’s a tradition truly from the heart. Ollie was born with several health conditions, with only a 10% chance of surviving delivery. He was abandoned at the hospital by his birth parents and spent three months with nurses embracing him as their own.
"He became our baby. We bought him toys, and clothes and whatever he needed. And we got to be very protective of him," said Tina Mattingly, charging nurse of the PICU.
It was Valentine’s Day weekend in 2015—Sarah Strode’s heart found a new beat after locking eyes with Ollie for the first time.
"A couple days later, I brought three of our girls and his dad sent a heart shaped balloon, and we tied it to his crib. And I have a picture of the three little girls standing in front of his crib and Ollie just staring up at his balloon. And it was the most precious thing ever," said Strode.
Strode, an experienced foster parent, said it was in that moment she decided to foster Ollie. The following year proved to be extremely challenging for the new family. Ollie, who already had a lung disease, contracted a virus that attacked his breathing. He was on a ventilator for many days clinging to life, as Strode was at his side night and day. She recalled nurse Mattingly encouraging her to go home and rest.
"I just said, ‘I don’t think I can handle him being alone, because he was alone all those months before.’ And she just said ‘No, we got him. We had him then, we’ll have him now,’" said Strode with tears in her eyes.
"He’s kept us on our toes. He has scared us to death more than once," said Mattingly. "There’s been a lot of ups and downs with him, and we have just held on right at times, and take the wins when we get them. And he is a winner."
And he is a lover.
"I love all my nurses," said Ollie, while handing out candy to a few nurses.
The hospital published a blog of Ollie's extensive medical journey. Through all of his health scares over the years, Strode said he keeps a smile on his face.
"He’s that quiet fighter. He’s a fighter, but he doesn’t even know that that’s what he is doing. And he inspires people, and he doesn’t know he’s doing that either. And he’s inspired me, and he’s made my faith grow deeper. He’s really brought something in me, as a mom, that I didn’t know I had," said Strode.
It’s a love story that got its happy ending when the Strode family adopted Ollie. It’s a story even his extended hospital family also shares, not just on Valentine’s Day, but always.
"We have just loved watching him excel and grow, and it’s amazing. He’s just made so much progress," said Mattingly.
"His story just helps people understand the human spirit and the resiliency of a human spirit," said Strode.
After delivering 40 balloons to kids in the hospital, he could not wait to go to school for a Valentine’s Day party. There, he handed out cards and treats to his kindergarten classmates.
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