CLIFF RADEL The Cincinnati Enquirer
CINCINNATI — The grade-school bullies called him so many names he wanted to die.
"Stupid," ''Freaky," ''Retarded" and "Trashcan" were the kindest things they said to their fifth-grade classmate, Josh Frey. The cruel words upset the 11-year-old Mason boy so much he refused a kidney transplant.
Josh needs that operation. His end-stage renal disease requires daily dialysis.
The bullying accelerated in January. Josh was so down in the dumps he didn't want to go to school.
He discussed his depression with his doctor, Rene G. Van De Voorde III. The medical director of Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center's dialysis unit volunteered to go to Josh's school, Stewart Elementary in Sharonville.
He talked to Josh's fellow students, bullies included. No one mentioned the b-word.
Instead of talking about bullying, he told them what it is like to be Josh, to be poked with lots of needles and never cry, to take seven different kinds of medicine and never complain. And to be connected to a dialysis machine every night when he goes to bed.
"No big deal," Josh says. "It's just another IV needle."
After the doctor's visit, Josh's classmates called him by another name: "Brave."
Josh's mom, Barbara Frey, talked about her son's ordeal recently while sitting in the cafe of the Barnes & Noble Bookstore in Warren County's Deerfield Township.
Between return visits to the cafe, Josh and his sister, Katie, 9, quietly roamed the aisles while their mom spoke.
Barbara Frey wanted Van De Voorde "to get some recognition for what he did. He went to Josh's school on his off day. He made things better for Josh. What he did was extraordinary."
Shauna McDowell, Stewart Elementary's principal, agreed.
"How many doctors do you know who would take their day off to talk to a bunch of fifth-graders?" she said. "He made a difference. Now, we have monthly assemblies reminding the kids to watch what they say and be nice to each other. Because it has had lasting results, his visit was huge."
Not so, demurred Van De Voorde. He saw his visit as part of "a collaborative effort" and praised Josh's mom for "being on top of his problem."
Barbara Frey has always been on top of her son's problems. Before he was born, doctors told her he had life-threatening abnormalities on both of his kidneys. Predicting he would only live a matter of days, they recommended an abortion.
Frey and her husband, Robert, decided to "pray for a miracle. And we got one." Josh was celebrating his 12th birthday Saturday.
When the bullying started, she noticed that her son "went from happy to sad" about going to school. That happened about "a month after we moved back here from Maryland two weeks after the start of this school year."
Katie Frey witnessed the bullying. Twisting her little hands around the tail of her red T-shirt, she described in a whisper how she rode the school bus home "and heard those boys in the back of the bus say bad words to my brother. It made me cry."
Van De Voorde noted that Josh "was pretty extraordinary" during his school visit where he "talked about Josh's condition and why he can't do some of the activities at school."
The physician asked Josh to stand in front of the class.
"I was sitting in the second row, fifth in," Josh said. "Getting up there was easy."
What Josh did next could have been difficult for a fearful kid. But, he did it with ease. The doctor asked him to pull up his shirt. Josh showed his classmates a scar on his abdomen from his first dialysis.
Josh had his first kidney transplant at the age of 3. His body rejected the organ when he was 5.
Josh also showed the class the dialysis catheter protruding from his stomach. Van De Voorde demonstrated how the catheter connected to a dialysis machine.
Then, he showed the class a photo of a real kidney and passed around a plastic model of the organ.
The photo and the model kidney "created a queasy factor," the doctor said. Some kids left the room, including one bully.
Van De Voorde observed that his patients frequently encounter bullies. "Kidney patients miss a lot of school. They're sick. Bullies like to pick on them."
Bullying can be hazardous to your health. "It affects the patient's psychological and social well-being," Van DeVoorde said. So, he was not surprised when Josh declined a second kidney transplant.
"That's the one thing in his life where he feels in control," the doctor said. "He can't control what those bullies say. But he can control the transplant. He's just acting out."
Since Van De Voorde spoke to the class, his patient has stopped acting out and the bullies have cut down on their acting up. Now, Josh wants a kidney transplant.
"In June," he said with a smile. "Or sooner."
At the end of the doctor's show-and-tell session, a student raised his hand. He looked at Josh and said: "Some of the things you do scare me. Josh, you're brave."
Josh knows he's not alone in being bullied. Studies show that between 15 percent and 25 percent of U.S. students are picked on and verbally abused with some frequency.
The 11-year-old has two words of advice for other kids dealing with bullies: "Ignore them."
If that doesn't work, call Dr. Van De Voorde. The visit he paid to Josh's school turned into a prescription for transforming bullies into human beings.