Faith, friendship carry Metro Detroit teenagers through illness

Tommy Schomaker, Sam Kell remain longtime friends

By Sarah Mayberry, M.P.H. - Producer

ROCHESTER, Mich. - You might say Tommy Schomaker and Sam Kell were born to be friends.

Their mothers, Colleen Schomaker and Gina Kell Spehn, have been best friends since college.

"I don't think they had a choice," Spehn said.

"No, they didn't," Schomaker said.

"Our kids, they were going to be friends because we were friends," Spehn said.

"It's been like that ever since," Tommy Schomaker said.

Tommy Schomaker and Sam Kell (WDIV)

Theirs are friendships forged in good times and bad.

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"I was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome," Tommy Schomaker said. "The left side of my heart didn't work, so I had my first surgery when I was 8 days old. And then between that time and when I was 5, I had five open-heart surgeries."

"I remember that he was missing school all the time. One year, I think he missed the first day of school. and I was like, 'How isn’t Tommy here? It’s the first day of school,’" Kell said.

Tommy Schomaker's heart was failing, and when he was 8 years old, he received a heart transplant.

"Got the news that he was getting a new heart. Best news ever, honestly," Kell said. "I remember running into school like, 'Tommy got a new heart!' I remember that day so vividly."

Kell visited Tommy Schomaker in the hospital.

Tommy Schomaker and Sam Kell (WDIV)

"I just remember telling my mom every day, 'When's Sam coming? I want Sam to come visit me,'" Tommy Schomaker said.

There is a picture of Kell visiting Tommy Schomaker in the hospital. It's a picture that's especially striking now, for a reason no one could have imagined back then.

"The summer going into my freshman year of high school, I started having dizziness and double vision," Kell said. "It ended up being a brain tumor, and I went into brain surgery the next day. They found a glioblastoma tumor."

The news was especially gut-wrenching because Kell lost his dad, Matt Kell, to cancer when he was just 4 years old. He died on Christmas Day.

"Now all of a sudden, this is happening to my best friend. It was very upsetting, it was very shocking," Tommy Schomaker said.

Tommy Schomaker and Sam Kell (WDIV)

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The roles were suddenly reversed. Now it was Tommy Schomaker's turn to visit Kell in the hospital 

"I had treatment done in Chicago, and he came down and visited me," Kell said.

"I was going to be there for him all the time, just with whatever he needed," Tommy Schomaker said. "Obviously, this is a rare situation, so it's very good to have someone you can relate to."

Kell says he understands so much better now what Tommy Schomaker has been through.

"I think that trying to live an everyday life, it's a lot easier to live with somebody going through something that you're going through," Kell said. "Once you go through something like this, I think it just changes your perspective on life, and I think it's really important."

"I think that every person who goes through something in their life, they want someone who understands them," Gina Spehn said. "Which is what Colleen and I share, but then so do these two boys."

Tommy Schomaker and Sam Kell (WDIV)

"You know, Sam is like one of mine, and Tommy is one of hers," Colleen Schomaker said.

"Having those kind of friendships for myself, as well as having those for our children, has maybe been the greatest gift of our life," Gina Spehn said. "Those relationships are not easy to come by, and I know that not everybody has those."

Kell is still receiving treatment. He wears a device on his head called Optune.

"It sends these little electrical impulses into my brain, almost like magnets. It just separates the cells until they die off," Kell said.

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If you have teenage boys, it won't surprise you that Tommy Schomaker and Kell don't sit around talking about their health.

"Zero times talking about illness," Kell said. 

"We just talk about whatever else is going on,” Tommy Schomaker said.

“Trying to be normal,” Kell said.

But both boys are sharing their stories with others.

Tommy Schomaker wants to raise awareness of the need for more organ donors.

Kell wants to help other families struggling with cancer

"That has made me very, very proud and just happy that they can see the meaning and see the greater purpose and then want to share that with other people," Colleen Schomaker said.

Tommy Schomaker and Sam Kell (WDIV)

"I'm incredibly proud of these kids. They make us proud every day," Gina Spehn said.

Through it all, the boys say family, friends and above all, their faith, has kept them going.

"I think focusing on God first, I think that sets a good perspective on life, and it can help you just get through those tough times," Kell said.

"Definitely God's the most important part in all of this. You know, obviously, I don't think I'd be here today if I didn't have God in my life," Tommy Schomaker said.

Their friendship? No mere coincidence.

"You kind of get the answer to that question of why us. You get to see that it's all for a reason," said Tommy Schomaker said.

Their stories and their steadfast faith have already inspired countless people. It's praise they are quick to brush aside.

"We're just trying to live our lives normally, and I don't know, if Tommy didn't have a heart defect and I didn't have brain cancer, I don't think anyone would think of us as heroes really," Kell said.

Tommy Schomaker and Kell are seniors this year and making plans for college. Health-wise, they're doing well.

Tommy Schomaker's heart is strong. He'll celebrate the 10-year anniversary of his "gift of life" next June.

Kell's latest scan showed no sign of cancer. He'll continue wearing his Optune and having regular MRIs.

"I'm not really sure what the future holds," Tommy Schomaker said. "I know that God's got definitely a good plan for the both of us. I know that the future definitely holds something good for the both of us."

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