When they moved to Cumming in July of 2017, Hillary and Ryan Smith had high hopes for the future. Hillary had taken a new job at Haw Creek Elementary School, and Ryan took over managing a battery store. With family and work nearby, both Hillary and Ryan said that things were looking good for their family.
But when the flu season rolled through Georgia along with most of the country, Ryan began to get sicker and sicker.
He said that each day he felt weaker and weaker and that nothing seemed to help.
“I didn’t know then what was underneath it all,” Ryan Smith said. “One day, I got up for work and I couldn’t walk from my front door to my car.”
Ryan Smith said that after realizing how bad he felt, he drove himself to Northside Hospital Forsyth and was quickly rushed into the intensive care unit.
“By the time I got there I could not get out of the car, I mean my legs could not work, I couldn’t breathe, I mean I literally felt like I was going to stop breathing,” he said.
He said his doctors in the intensive care unit discovered that an infection had attacked his heart and that its function was quickly slipping. He said that the infection had gone septic and had spread throughout his body.
“The last thing I remember from that day is the nurse asking me for my phone and asking what was [Hillary’s] number. I heard her telling Hillary that, ‘you better get here, because we are about to put him on life support,’” he said.
After nine days in the intensive care unit and the progressive care unit, Hillary and Ryan Smith were faced with several hard choices of how to proceed. Ryan was out of immediate danger, but he had still suffered a serious attack on his body, that had left his heart weak and functioning at about 10 percent of its normal function.
Ryan Smith said that the doctors and nurses never said it openly, but he was looking at long road to recovery.
“They didn’t want to put in an internal defibrillator, because of how young he is,” said Hillary Smith, explaining the options the doctors laid out for them in his last days in the hospital.
She said that doctors wanted Ryan to recover on his own, and avoid a serious surgery.
“That’s when they suggested the Life Vest,” she said.
Hillary explained that before leaving the hospital, Ryan was fitted for a piece of non-intrusive medical technology that he would wear for the next three months, called a Life Vest. She said that the Life Vest serves the dual function of alerting them when Ryan’s heart acts irregularly and if it were to ever stop beating, the vest will shock his heart, and alert 911 of his situation and GPS location.
She said that they almost walked out of the hospital without the Life Vest after their insurance denied a claim to cover the device, but after a last-minute donation from the Northside Hospital Forsyth they were able to take the vest.
“We were quoted one quote of $3,500 a month and another for $175 a day for the vest … so we almost left without it. Then our nurse for the day came in and said that she had gone and talked to her boss, and the hospital was going to pick up the first month of it,” she said.
Even with the first month paid for by the hospital, Hillary said they were still pressed to cover the $3,500 for the remaining two months. She said that Ryan was still too weak to work, so she decided to turn to the community for help.
“Immediately people from the county started donating, we were blown away by how many people were commenting and donating."Hillary Smith
Hillary started a page on GoFundme.com, called Ryan’s Life Vest, and posted a plea on the local Facebook group, Focus on Forsyth, explaining their problems and asking the community for support.
“Never in my life did I think that I’d have to start a GoFundMe page. But I said let’s just see, we have nothing and nowhere to turn to, if we don’t get help, this is going back at the end of February,” Hillary said.
Both Hillary and Ryan said that they were shocked by how quickly donations started pouring into their page, and how open the community was to helping them out.
“Immediately people from the county started donating, we were blown away by how many people were commenting and donating,” she said.
She said that a week after they posted on Facebook, they were contacted by a group in Forsyth called the Forsyth County Jeepers, who had seen their story and wanted to help out. She said that the Jeepers were able to spread the message to their network of followers, and within a week they had raised more than $2,000 for the family.
According to Bob Evans, a leader of the Forsyth County Jeepers group, they saw Hillary’s post on Facebook and knew it was a cause they could get behind.
“After we met this couple, we more or less fell in love with them. They are just down to earth people who are having a really hard time,” Evans said.
Evans said that they went beyond simply raising money for the family, inviting the Smith family to meetings and events, and helping them out in other ways like throwing a birthday party for the Smiths’ son.
“It’s just been overwhelming, people we don’t know helping us out so much,” Hillary said.
“I have never seen people like this in my life. I was the associate pastor at a Baptist church where I’m from and we probably had 700 members. As wonderful as I still think that church is I have never seen people like these people in Cumming,” Ryan said. “They don’t even know me.”
Today, Ryan said that he has good days and bad days, but overall he feels like he is on the mend.
Hillary said that until he has recovered, they feel better knowing that his heart is covered by the Life Vest, and their family is covered by the community.