GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Long before the Grand Rapids children’s hospital bore her first name, Helen DeVos created a holiday tradition of visiting the young patients at DeVos Children’s Hospital.
During those December visits, she read books. It was a natural way to connect for the former elementary school teacher, who gave up her career to help her husband launch Amway, a business that would make them billionaires.
Kids took to her quickly, appreciating the comfort and ease she felt in their presence, said Rick Breon, CEO of Spectrum Health, the parent organization of the children’s hospital.
“The kids were mesmerized and she was really good at it,” Breon said of DeVos, who died Oct. 18 at her home in Ada at age 90. “It was probably the same thing she would have done for her grandchildren, that’s what it reminded everyone of.”
Since the early 1990s, there had been a DeVos Children’s Hospital. But when the hospital upgraded in 2011 to a $286 million, 14-story gleaming blue tower, the name changed to the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
DeVos’ four grown children collectively contributed $50 million for the lead donation, so they could name the hospital after her. It was a tribute to their mother’s caring and generous nature, they said.
“I think the naming of the hospital was a great fit with who she was and her identify,” Breon said.
When she walked through the new hospital, DeVos was wowed by the colorful, child-friendly lobby and the cutting-edge technology.
The space was designed with pediatric patients in mind from the emergency to the radiology departments.
She saw the potential in creating a place that could provide hope and healing to many children and their families.
“I think this hospital is going to be recognized as a very important children’s hospital, not only in Grand Rapids and West Michigan, but way beyond, ” she told MLive at the time.
For the last six years, the hospital has been recognized nationally for care provided in six specialites: cancer, cardiology and heart surgery, nephrology, orthopedics, pulmonology and urology.
On staff, more than 300 pediatric physicians practice in more than 50 specialties and programs.
They treat hundreds of thousands of children a year, from 500 seen during office visits with specialists daily to about 10,000 who are treated in the 234-bed hospital annually.
The latter includes 1,700 babies cared for in the hospital’s neonatal unit, one of the biggest in the country.
Cities the size of Grand Rapids can’t have this kind of world class medical care without significant philanthropic support, says Dr. Robert Connors, president of Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
“I think it is fair to say that without their support – of course of the support of all the generous people of Grand Rapids and West Michigan – we might not have a children’s hospital,” Connors said.
The severity of the illnesses is very high in children’s hospitals, which is why the care is so costly, he added.
DeVos and her husband have been major benefactors of the children’s hospital – and other hospital programs — for decades. They made annual contributions, but were also the first to step up to support new programs and specialties.
Every year, the DeVos family meets with hospital leaders and staff to hear about how patients were being helped by their generosity.
“They were obviously very, very generous with us but I think all through the years, both Rich and Helen were involved talking about our goals and our dreams and where we wanted to take the care for children here by expanding the programs,” Connors said.
The hospital was on DeVos’ mind a few weeks ago when she and husband Rich hosted Spectrum Health’s CEO and his wife, Peg, for dinner at their Ada home.
“We were talking about how far the hospital had come,” Breon said.