Outlaws, beware. There’s a new sheriff in the town of Huntington, Indiana: 3-year-old Wyatt Schmaltz.
The toddler, who is receiving treatment for stage 4 neuroblastoma, was sworn in Wednesday as the nation’s youngest sheriff deputy from his hospital bed at Indiana University Health’s Riley Hospital for Children.
“I’ve been in the law enforcement for 25 years,” says Huntington County Sheriff Terry Stoffel, 53, who deputized Wyatt, “and I can honestly say it’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever had happen in my whole career.”
Wyatt was diagnosed in April with the aggressive cancer, which has spread past his abdomen into his bones and marrow. He has been undergoing arduous chemotherapy every two weeks since, with abdominal surgery and a stem-cell transplant on the horizon.
Like many boys his age, he likes playing policeman.
“He likes to play cops at home,” Wyatt’s mother, April Schmaltz, 33, tells PEOPLE. “He always arrests his brothers and takes them to ‘jail’ – I believe he’s even tried to arrest his daddy. Granted, the jail is usually the front door.”
One thing Wyatt has in common with a real sheriff’s deputy: Courage. Lots of it.
“If you take two minutes to get to know him, you’ll know immediately that he’s a very charismatic 3-year-old that draws everybody’s hearts to him,” says Dr. Jacob Zucker, one of Wyatt’s physicians. “He approaches what he has to face like a true hero.”
It was this spirit that attracted the attention of Stoffel, who runs a camp in Huntington dedicated to teaching children skills related to law enforcement and public safety.
“We wanted him to be an honorary camper,” says Stoffel of Wyatt, who has served as this year’s symbol of courage for Huntington Camp Hero. The original plan was for Wyatt to be sworn in as a sheriff’s deputy in front of all the campers. However, when he was hospitalized with an infection, Stoffel and Indiana State Trooper Robert Jeffers made the two-hour trek to visit Wyatt in the hospital.
“We were not going to miss any beats in this whole thing, and he was going to get swore in, come hell or high water,” says Stoffel.
After taking the official oath as sheriff deputy, Wyatt was presented with an official badge and uniform, made from one of Stoffel’s own shirts.
“I lost my wife to pancreatic cancer about two years ago,” Stoffel tells PEOPLE. “Being helpless is the feeling that really gets you. Wyatt is an icon for courage.”
Wyatt’s mother, who broadcast the event to more than 200 campers and the entire sheriff’s department over Skype, says there wasn’t a dry eye.
“The sheriff that was at the camp watching started crying as soon as it came up,” says Schmaltz. “The [sheriff and trooper] swearing him in were barely able to hold it together.”
The family and community support that Wyatt and other patients get “means absolutely everything in their treatment,” Zucker says.
Sheriff Stoffel says Wyatt, who celebrated his badge with a nice, long nap, only has one official order.
“As a special deputy, he’s responsible for only the tasks that are assigned to him through that statute, and his orders, his marching orders, are to get better and keep living his life to the fullest.”