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With veteran’s guidance, young patients connect, develop and heal

He was on the front lines in Iraq as an army medic who swooped in to help those injured in combat. Now Joe Weismantel’s job is to play. But he plays a critical role in the lives of young patients.

“Being a combat medic in Iraq and flying into different environments and picking up casualties, the more and more I think about it the more I’m like, I did what?!” Joe says.  “I did impact a positive change on somebody else’s life when they needed it the most. I really do feel like this is what I was meant to do.”

The days are long for Logan Vallee, a heart transplant patient, the 16-year-old has been in the hospital for weeks.

On the day of WGN’s visit, Joe and patient Logan were stringing “beads of courage.”  Heart patients collect them for each procedure they’ve endured. And they were talking sports.

“To have someone come in and talk about wrestling or basketball kind of breaks up the day to day,” Joe says.  “Some of the fears that he had prior to his transplant, he shared those with me and if you know teenagers they don’t talk about feelings to just anybody.”

“He’s just amazing to me,” Logan says. “He’s always been there for me and I just love him.”

It’s the same mission, but a different landscape in the cardiac care unit.

“Some of them are quite literally fighting for their lives,” Joe says.

It may look like playtime, but there’s purpose behind Joe’s interactions. In the case of Maxine, an 18-month-old in heart failure with multiple heart defects, it’s making sure her long hospitalization doesn’t impair her development.

“Being able to see her progress through different developmental milestones and seeing her go from almost walking to walking ad crawling, it really makes you feel like you’re doing something right,” Joe says.  “The parents said there was a time if any new face came in her room she was crying and not having it.  And now everybody walks by and says, ‘Hi Maxine,’ and she says hi back.”

“They invite you to be a part of the bad days to help see them thru  them and they also invite you to be part of the good days too.”