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Freshman pole-vaulter Andrea Smith derives courage from an ill brother

Smith’s older brother Brad is awaiting a slow-coming third pancreas transplant.

To an extent, those who pole vault are regarded as living life on the edge. But that doesn’t cut it in Andrea Smith’s family.

Not when her brother is on the edge of life.

Andrea Smith is a freshman on Minnesota’s women’s track and field team. Her brother Brad Smith is a 22-year-old without a functioning pancreas.

So at 7 p.m. Thursday, while she’s in Sacramento, Calif., competing in the qualifying round of the NCAA Championships in the pole vault, he will be hooked up to nutritional IVs, rooting his sister on from their home in Bemidji, Minn.

That’s something that makes Andrea Smith very grateful for this week’s opportunity.

“Everyone struggles and everyone has day-to-day issues with things, and you can let them get out of proportion,” she said. “And then I think, every night he gets hooked up with IVs at eight o’clock at night and is on them until eight o’clock in the morning; that reminds me I’m really fortunate.”

Brad Smith was born with an extensive list of health complications, most specifically a very severe form of diabetes.

Because of that, he’s already had two pancreas transplants. Now he needs a third, but neither of the Smith’s insurance companies wants to pay for it.

The first insurance company, which the Smiths pay for, has a clause that says it doesn’t have to pay for a third transplant if the first two fail, Andrea Smith said. The second company, which the Smiths have to cover their expenses when the first maxes out, is also refusing to pay for the transplant because of the failure of the first two.

Brad Smith said it’s frustrating but that he’s trying to make the best of it.

“The second transplant worked for longer than the first one did, so the way I see things, the third time could be the charm, I guess,” he said.

Because of those complications, doctors told the Smiths to schedule a Make-A-Wish Foundation trip when Brad was eight years old. Andrea was five.

Brad Smith was then put on Remicade, a drug that is primarily used to treat rheumatoid arthritis but also helps with autoimmune diseases.

It was very successful for a while, but in Andrea Smith’s junior year of high school, her brother’s pancreas had deteriorated so much that he needed a transplant.

Unfortunately for his little sister, Brad Smith’s transplant surgery was on the same day she was to compete at regionals. She wanted to skip the meet and be with her family at the hospital, but she said her parents told her that her brother would want her to compete.

Andrea Smith said she kept her cell phone at her side during the whole meet so that she could rush to the hospital if anything went wrong.

Something did go wrong – very wrong. After the transplant, Brad Smith’s new pancreas ruptured while his sister was on the runway trying to clear 10-6 to qualify for state. He had to be rushed back into surgery to get more blood.

“I was vaulting, and he was basically bleeding to death into his belly,” Andrea Smith said.

Her phone rang just before her final vault, and she passed it to another competitor so she wouldn’t miss anything important.

Andrea Smith went straight to her brother’s hospital room after the meet. She gripped his hand and he opened his eyes but couldn’t talk because of the ventilator. She said when he could finally talk later that afternoon, the first thing he said was, “I’m going to be there at state.”

The state championships were just a week and a half later. But he came anyway, against his doctor’s wishes.

Andrea Smith said he looked “really skinny” and was white as a ghost when their father brought him to the stands in a wheelchair during her warm-ups. But she was deeply moved to see him and ran to give him a big hug.

“Just knowing that the reason he healed up and got out of the hospital so fast was because he believed in me and wanted to come watch me, it just put things in huge perspective,” Andrea Smith said. “My accomplishments that day seemed huge to me, but he had just beat a life-threatening battle to come watch me, basically.”

Her brother’s inspiration helped Andrea Smith win that year’s state title. In fact, she won the title her sophomore and senior years as well.

Brad Smith said seeing his sister win the title was “the best feeling in the world,” but also said knowing his sister calls him inspirational is very uplifting.

“It makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something,” he said.

In turn, she inspires him. He said his family is the reason he has been able to stay so positive through everything.

During that time, Andrea Smith said she was worried she wouldn’t be able to get away from track to be with her brother. But Gophers coach Gary Wilson understood there were bigger things in her life.

“She was like, ‘Can I do that?’ ” Wilson said. “And I said, ‘Go, we’ll make it happen.’ Like track would come before that. It ended up she didn’t need to miss anything, but it shows she is dedicated to the team and dedicated to her brother.”

Brad Smith was able to make it to most of his sister’s meets that were closer to home this season, but has never been able to do any flying. Though he’s used to it, he said, Brad Smith is still disappointed he can’t make the trip to Sacramento.

“I’m kind of disappointed,” Brad Smith said. “But I know I’ll get another chance, maybe I’ll get to go next time.”

Andrea Smith did her final workout before NCAAs on Monday morning at the Bierman Track and Field Complex with former Gophers pole-vaulter Monica Stearns, who holds the school outdoor record.

“She is huge in that she’s been there before, seen everything and been through everything,” Andrea Smith said. “And so just to talk to her, she’s just a huge inspiration.”

But, obviously, not nearly as big of an inspiration as brother Brad.

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