HOUSTON -- Astros pitcher Joe Smith won’t be able to see his mother on Mother’s Day. On Sunday, he will have to settle for a brief phone call or a visit via FaceTime arranged by his father, Mike.
The coronavirus pandemic has cut off in-person contact between Lee Smith and her family for nearly two months. She was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease in 2012 and has spent the last 2 1/2 years living in a nursing facility.
Joe Smith last saw his mother in person before he left for Spring Training in West Palm Beach, Fla., where he remains today with his wife, TV sideline reporter Allie LaForce, waiting for life to return to normal. Visitors aren’t allowed inside the Cincinnati-area facility where Lee Smith is residing, but her only son has her on his mind constantly.
“We’ve seen what happens if this disease gets into a place like that,” Joe Smith said. “These people are in bad health. It could wipe out that entire building. My dad goes to the nursing home and sits outside her window and the nurse hands her a phone and they talk. Nobody is allowed in or anything like that. She’s doing all right.”
Lee Smith loves visitors, even if it requires social distancing. Her husband goes to the facility daily to visit his wife, talking to her through a window, but it’s not the same as being able to hold her hand and sit next to her and comfort her.
“It would be nice if we can get this thing behind us and we and go and actually visit,” Joe said.
Huntington's disease is a deadly neurological disorder with no cure. Lee inherited it from her mother, who died from it in 2012. The disease causes the progressive breakdown of nerve cells in the brain. It deteriorates a person's physical and mental abilities during their prime working years, between 30 and 50 years old. Smith's mother was diagnosed eight years ago, and in ’17 went into a nursing home at 59 years old.
Lee Smith’s symptoms started about 15 years ago. She started having involuntary muscle movements that had her unintentionally slamming doors, pots, dishes and cupboards. She started getting anxious easily and coughing frequently, her mind was racing and her words were slurring. Then came the mood swings.
“It’s tough watching the decline right in front of your face,” Joe Smith said.
There was a time Lee Smith was full of life and vigor. An elementary school teacher, she made sure Joe’s grades were on point. Mike Smith traveled a lot while working sales, so often it was Lee who was taking Joe and his sister to their games and events as kids in Ohio.
“I would be playing baseball or something in the front yard with some friends and she’d be yelling at me because I was late to my tutor and all this stuff, and I wanted nothing to do with it,” Joe said with a laugh. “I just wanted to play sports. She was good, man.”
Joe’s sister, Megan, along with her husband and three kids, moved back to Ohio to help Mike Smith care for his wife. One of the things Lee loves more than anything is watching baseball, specifically watching Joe pitch on TV. She probably wants games to return as much as her son does.
“It would kill her if I came home and said I’m not doing this, I want to be with you,” Joe Smith said. “She enjoys so much of watching all our games, which they’ll record for her at night and play back for the next day. If I don’t pitch, they’ll put on a game from another day when I did. But it’s difficult.”
Balancing the pain of watching his mother slowly decline and the thrills of his rewarding life as a professional athlete have been tough, but Joe focuses on the positive. Smith has made 782 appearances in 13 years in the big leagues. In December, he signed a two-year, $8 million contract to return to the Astros. LaForce travels the country as a TV sideline reporter for the NBA on TNT.
In an effort to help stop Huntington’s disease, Smith and LaForce founded HelpCureHD.org, which aims to help improve the quality of life for those affected by the disease by contributing financial, emotional and mental support while trying to find a cure. The foundation is paying for families in need to use in vitro fertilization with genetic testing that would allow only healthy embryos to be implanted. This would guarantee a child would be HD-free, stopping the disease from spreading down generations. The process can cost as much as $30,000 to $40,000 per attempt.
Joe Smith said 24 families have started seeing fertility doctors with the help of the foundation, though some of the tests were put on hold when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Even so, Joe was thrilled to recently find out that two couples -- one in Houston and one in his native Ohio -- were pregnant. He’s hoping he and LaForce can start a family soon, as well.
“Hopefully, in another month or two, we start getting some more phone calls and letting us know more families are pregnant,” he said.
There’s a 50-50 chance Joe could develop Huntington’s disease in the future. That’s not stopping him from enjoying his life. His mother wouldn’t want him to dwell on it even though she’s proof of how devasting the disease can be.
“We try to do what we can, but at the same time, you have to enjoy your life,” he said. “I’m playing baseball, and my wife is traveling around and doing her thing. Knowing that my mom would not want us to stop that helps a lot.”