Monday, December 31, 2012

Starting Off the New Year with Heart and Hope

Carden FamilyThere's a reason Rosie and Craig Carden have such a good feeling about the New Year. All they have to do is look at their tenacious infant son, Sammy, who fought so hard to survive the old one.

"He's a tough little guy," says Rosie. "Tough as nails."
   
In fact, Nails is his nickname. And when you hear his story, you understand why.
   
On Jan. 3, Sammy will usher in 2013 with his this third heart surgery at All Children's Hospital since coming into the world nearly eight months ago. He was born with an extremely rare, life-threatening condition marked by criss-crossed ventricles. "Only one in a million children with heart defects has it," says Rosie.
    
But Sammy, a baby with a mega-watt smile and shock of wavy brown hair, has proven himself to be a one-in-a-million kind of kid.
    
He underwent his first surgery at just a week of age, after All Children's cardiologist Dr. Kathryn Nardell gave his parents hope by correctly diagnosing his complex heart problem prior to his birth. And then came his second operation on June 29 - a harrowing, 10-hour ordeal in which Sammy suddenly seemed to be slipping away.
     
Yet the team of talented All Children's cardiovascular physicians and nurses - led by surgeon, Dr. Jeffrey Jacobs - refused to give up on him. And Sammy wouldn't quit, either.
    
"There was a point where we actually talked with the Sammy's family and Mom, especially, and explained to them that we thought it was not likely that the baby was going to make it," Dr. Jacobs says. "We sat down with them and said, 'We're going to continue trying and do our best to make it through this, but things don't look promising.'
    
"But the whole team just kept working and working. And we were able to get him to pull through."
   
Rosie and Craig will never forget the gut-wrenching swing of emotions with their first child.  One day earlier, Sammy had actually coded during a heart catheterization procedure but came around after 35 minutes of CPR. The next morning, however, their hearts sank after learning of the dire turn their 8-week-old son had taken two hours into emergency surgery. By late in the day, Sammy's prospects still appeared bleak and Rosie and Craig braced for the worst.
   
"The nurse had called me to say they were taking him off of the bypass machine, and that would probably be it," Rosie recalls. "They literally clamped the machine and said, 'Come on, take a breath, buddy!' "
    
And something amazing happened. Sammy showed everyone what a fighter he was.
    
He inhaled - a big, deep breath, all on his own.
    
"When they told me that, I fell to the ground," Rosie says. "I couldn't believe it."
     
For Dr. Jacobs, saving Sammy represented a true team effort in the face of a most challenging set of circumstances.
    
"Sammy was born with a problem in which his heart had one functional ventricle, and he didn't have a good connection between his heart and his lung," he explains. "So we had a plastic tube called a shunt that was placed from his heart to his lungs, to allow blood to flow to his lungs. It's not unusual that those tubes can narrow.
    
"It narrowed, and that led to a whole series of emergencies which were all quite stressful.  But ultimately Sammy pulled through and did great. And I think the fact that Sammy's still alive and getting ready to have another operation - and ultimately should do very well - is first of all reflective that he's obviously a very strong kid. But it's also reflective of the fact that we have such a great level of depth in our cardiac program at All Children's Hospital.
   
"What really saved Sammy is that there is so much depth in that program at all levels: the combination of cardiology, cardiac surgery, anesthesia, critical care and nursing. To get Sammy to live required excellence in at least those five areas. That combination of excellence is what really pulled this kid through this life-threatening emergency. A weakness in any one of those areas - and Sammy would not be here today."

* * *
   
He almost didn't wind up at All Children's in the first place.
   
Rosie and her sister, Suzy Mendelson, help run a Tampa-based family business that provides employee benefit solutions to companies. All Children's wasn't on the Carden's radar. But it soon would be.
     
Early in her pregnancy, Rosie remembers receiving a grave prognosis from doctors not affiliated with All Children's. "They said that I should terminate my pregnancy," she says. She and Craig were shaken but determined to seek a second opinion, assuming that would mean a trip to a children's hospital out of state - specifically, Boston Children's Hospital. But their research led to All Children's - only two miles from their St. Petersburg home - and the visit with Dr. Nardell that changed everything.
   
"Dr. Nardell spent four hours with us looking over hundreds and hundreds of pictures," Rosie recollects. "I said, 'Just give it to me straight. We're going to be prepared and if his quality of life is such that he can't be here, then he can't be here. But I need you to tell me.' And she said, 'We can fix it.' "   

Dr. Nardell laid out the course of action involving a series of three common surgeries Sammy would undergo. From that first visit, the Cardens were sold on a hospital about which they had known precious little.
    
"We couldn't believe that this kind of facility was literally two miles from home!" Rosie says.
    
The team that cared for Sammy also included Dr. James Quintessenza, who performed the first shunt surgery on Sammy. And ultimately, it even grew to include All Children's chaplain David Pitt, who spent countless hours offering support to Rosie and Craig - especially during the tortuous second surgery when things looked so bad.
   
As Sammy recovered in the days and weeks that followed, Rosie and Suzy became determined to show their gratitude in a special way. They felt indebted to the Child Life Department, which worked tirelessly with their baby to provide stimulation and keep his development on track with various toys and games. So they decided to organize a Christmas toy drop sponsored by their business, donating the kind of items to the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit that had helped Sammy so much.
    
They never imagined the turn their mission would take ¬- complete with a helping hand from an entity that knows something about special operations, U.S. Central Command.

* * *
    
As fate would have it, Suzy's young son has a classmate whose father works in Special Operations for CENTCOM, based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
    
When the child's dad got wind of the  toy drop, he sent Suzy an e-mail that CENTCOM had some toys left over from its own charity drive and offered to donate them to her project on behalf of Sammy. "He said, 'I've got to get them out of here today, can I bring them by?" Suzy says. "I told him yes, by all means, and was picturing a few boxes."
    
Instead, he showed up with a truck filled with several thousand toys - making Sammy's toy drop for All Children's one to remember. The military involvement seemed particularly fitting, given that the older sister of Rosie and Suzy is a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy who works as a congressional liaison at the Pentagon.
    
After receiving CENTCOM's massive contribution, Rosie and Suzy, along with a handful of their employees, diligently divided up the haul for girls and boys by age appropriateness. And they delivered the impressive load the week before Christmas, with some toys going to the CVICU and most  to the hospital as a whole.
    
Even amid the mountain of toys, Sammy was still the star of the show.
    
Smiling in his mom's arms, he was greeted by various nurses who'd fallen in love with him during the four months he'd spent at All Children's. Child Life's Loren Mirsky-Piatkin, who had worked so often with Sammy to help spur his mental process, was there to coordinate the event and hug the baby and family she's gotten to know so well.  And Dr. Nardell even made a special trip to the lobby to see her exemplary patient.
    
"He's doing well," she says. "We're looking ahead to his next surgery and hoping that goes well for him. He looks wonderful. And he has a special family. They've been involved from the beginning and he has parents who've always wanted to be involved - and know as much as they can. They've been great. It actually doesn't surprise me that they've pulled this off.  If there's anyone who can do it - it's them."
   
For Rosie, the trip back to All Children's that day held special meaning.
   
"This place is not a hospital to me - it is home," she says. "And these people are my family. It's not just the doctors. It's every single nurse that's in the CVICU, all the nurse techs. It's speech therapy. It's physical therapy. My child has not had any developmental delays. He's been in the hospital four months out of the seven months of his life and he doesn't have any physical or mental delays. And he was given CPR for 35 minutes here. He's a miracle. And he's a miracle because of these people."
   
"I just think of how strong he is to have made it through such hardships, as young as he is," Craig adds. "It's really amazing. It's totally unexpected for anyone to have to go through what Sammy's been though. But just knowing that it's not outside the norm for All Children's makes me feel so much more at ease. Everyone there just blew me away."
    
The family experienced its share of adversity in 2012. The sisters' father had a stroke the day after Sammy's first surgery, though he's doing well now. Their grandfather and grandmother passed away. And out of the blue, the Carden's beloved dog died, too. And of course, there was the rollercoaster of emotions tied to newborn Sammy.
    
"Considering how 2012 went, I'm pretty sure 2013 is going to be awesome," says Rosie with a smile. "We're going to hit it out of the park this year."
    
And judging by how he's done so far, tough baby Sammy is going to nail it.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

“Midday Meditation” Mixes Music and Calming Words To Give All Children’s Staff A Valued Break

 Tom Gombarcik
Tom Gombarcik of the Materials Management Department, plays classical guitar at the Midday Meditation program.

One day a month, the world slows down for 30 minutes in a small, serene nook of the All Children's Hospital universe.

The daily pressures of the job and life pause briefly inside the chapel. Amid a soothing mix of live music and calming words from Chaplain David Pitt, employees from all parts of the hospital savor a chance to reflect and rejuvenate - and caregivers can enjoy some precious time to take care of themselves.

This is the half hour known as Midday Meditation, a program the chaplain began a year ago and one that regularly draws a cross-section of staffers who fill the room just off the bustling lobby  - to pray, meditate, contemplate or simply give themselves a restful break from the onrushing developments of the day.

David held the first such gathering during Thanksgiving week in 2011, and those who attended seemed thankful for the opportunity to slow down and build themselves back up, even for a just a half hour.

"This is a safe, peaceful place for people," he says. "It's a service designed for whoever can come, whenever they can walk in. They can stay for just for five minutes or for the full half hour. It doesn't matter. The idea is to create a space for anyone - if you're going to pray to Jesus, that's fine; if you're doing yoga, that's fine. It's whatever people need to do to connect with God or their higher power - and hopefully to come away feeling uplifted."

It has been a difficult few hours before last week's 12:30-1 p.m. event. A young boy, seriously injured in a car accident, has been rushed to the Emergency Center. And elsewhere in the hospital. Dr. Michael Gallant has just finished a particularly challenging plastic surgery on a youngster. But shortly after noon, he walks into the near empty chapel and sits down - not on one of the beautiful wooden bench seats but in front of an electronic piano by the front of the room.

"It's been a rough morning," says the Julliard-trained musician, letting the hands that just worked so skillfully in the O.R. create a flowing accompaniment on the keyboard.

His chords embellish a fine, finger-picked version of  "Gloria In Excelsis Deo" by Tom Gombarcik of the Materials Management Department, setting a fitting mood for the "Songs of the Season" theme for this month's service.

Several other musicians have arrived as well - employee ombudsman Janet Winder, an accomplished singer; new ACH music therapist Kelly Tyrrell, who will sing and play guitar; and professional saxophonist Rick Cronce, married to nurse supervisor Jane Mitchell. The music will range from soft and introspective to upbeat and energetic, reflecting a full spectrum of emotions.

And as 12:30 nears, people begin to filter into the chapel's cozy confines, with tabletops appointed both with a manger scene and Menorah. Sunlight streams in through a large stained glass window, and the steady blur of figures on the other side of the pane can be seen walking to and from the hospital.

People walk in and quietly take their seats, greeted by Tom's instrumentals "What Child Is This?" and "The First Noel." Dr. Gallant joins in, then takes his own improvised solo before and nods to Tom to take over the melody. After several minutes, the music ends and David steps to the front of the room. He thanks the musicians for offering their time and talents, and addresses the packed room.

"We'll have quiet moments and moments when you smile...," he begins.

"And you can smile during the quiet moments," interjects Dr. Gallant, causing a wave of laughter in the audience.
Then comes the first of several short readings, something called "Quiet Spaces," a prayer about wanting to learn to live and appreciate the moment, rather than always rushing and thinking of what lies ahead. The words serve as a gentle reminder to relax and fully experience what is to follow:

"...Remind me that tomorrow will take care of itself and that today is all I have. Let me enjoy my journey today. Wash away all thoughts of what I'd rather be doing or where I'd rather be at his moment. Take away the urge to push time forward. Help me to sit back and to simply be."

The performers underscore the message with an array of music that helps keep the 20 or so audience members fixed in the moment.

Tom plays an evocative acoustic rendition of "Silent Night." He's followed by Janet, a singer in her church's contemporary praise band. Accompanied by Dr. Gallant's flowing piano lines, she puts her heart and lovely voice into a Josh Grobin song named "Thankful" ("it's up to us to be the change / and even though this world needs to much more / there's so much to be thankful for.")

Rick, who has just returned from playing in London, changes the mood with three holiday classics showcasing fine sax and keyboard work: "White Christmas," "Jingle Bell Rock," "Santa Claus is Coming To Town" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

When he's finished, David returns with thoughts about transitions - both in this holiday season and the challenges awaiting everyone when they leave the service and return to their work.

"I find we're always transitioning working in the hospital here," he says. "In life we transition. Last week was Hanukkah, a celebration and time of giving. We celebrate next Christmas, a time of giving and family and joy.

"And we transition as soon as we walk out of here to the world you're going to: for some, it's a bedside; for some it's the OR, for some it's healing with families where it isn't about joy and happiness and peace. It's about fear and anxiety. We know that in this moment we feel safe. We feel blessed and thankful for so many things."

His talk soon shifts back to music - now with Kelly backing herself on guitar as she sings "Oh Holy Night" with a warm, engaging voice.

Time seems to sneak up on everyone. It's suddenly only minutes until 1 p.m. David offers his thanks to everyone who participated: those who lent their musical talents, and those who lent their time simply to listen and look after themselves for a bit.

"May you be washed in peace and given what you need in this time of year and in the days to come," he says. The words are greeted with applause as people begin to file out, moving to bouncy, keyboard-and-sax versions of "Winter Wonderland "and "Jingle Bells.

Nearby, Kathy Moore, who manages Sterile Processing and is part of Perioperative services, talks about how much the Midday Meditation program means to her. She'd never paid any attention to it until Tom, who works on the basement floor with her, suggested she might enjoy it. She's been four times now and won't miss it anymore.

"It's invaluable," she says. "I don't think enough people realize or take advantage of it, because this room wouldn't be big enough if they did. This has been a crazy day. It's hectic this time of year - heavy surgery schedules, a lot going on and people seem a little more tense sometimes. But this has been 30 minutes of total peace that I so appreciate."

The sentiment is echoed by Danielle Davis, office coordinator for Dr. Gallant.  "It's very soothing, a time to pray and relax and get some things off of my mind," she says. "It really meant a lot to me."

It means a lot to Dr. Gallant as well, giving him time to regroup after a rough morning with a very sick child.
"David is for everybody - he's here for the families and he's here for the staff," says the veteran surgeon. "And he's here for me and all of us."

The man who put it all together is pleased with how it all came together this day. The holiday-themed music was just right, offering a powerful and emotional interplay with the words of the day. "I even heard some people crying," David says. "It's a peaceful, quiet place. You close the door, and we really are between two worlds."

Outside the chapel, Kenneth Lawton, an environmental services worker, couldn't have been happier that he decided to stop by for the first time.

"It's inspiring to me, something that's inspiring and refreshing," Kenneth says, holding a canned energy drink. Then he looks at the can in his hand  and adds: "It's like an energy drink all by itself - a real boost to get you going the rest of the day." 

In the heart of the holiday season, with Christmas fast approaching, that's a special gift as staffers head back to face the day's challenges with spirits renewed.

Monday, December 24, 2012

It’s A “Wonderland” Life: New Toy Tradition at All Children’s Gives Parents A Helping Hand

Wonderland at ACH
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Beatrice Paxson could barely believe her eyes Sunday morning when she entered the big room in the All Children's Hospital Outpatient Care Center.

Before her were a dozen rows of tables, each piled with every kind of gift a kid could dream of - or any parent could possibly expect to find without a trip to the nearest Toys "R" Us.

Welcome to Wonderland.

The first annual event at All Children's - designed to ensure that patients will get an array of cool presents picked by their own parents - couldn't have gone any better in its inaugural run Sunday and Monday.

All you had to do was ask Beatrice.

"I walked through that door and it was like heaven," she said. "I was just floored."

Beatrice and husband Mike didn't imagine there was any way they'd have time to doing any Christmas shopping this year, given the events of this past week. They've spent every day since Dec. 17 in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit with their newborn daughter, Diane, who was transported from the family's home in Fort Myers by helicopter with a heart problem, among other issues.

While worrying about their baby, they've also fretted that there wasn't enough time - or money in their budget - to get the one present their older daughter, Bebe, wanted more than anything for Christmas: a popular TV pillow pet known as a Dream Lite.

But as Beatrice made her way around the room, assisted by one of the many volunteer shopping helpers, she saw it: a plastic box containing Perky the Penguin, one of the furry Dream Lite toys that Bebe has been begging for.

"When I saw it, I almost started crying," she said. "Because every time she sees a commercial for it, she's like, 'Mommy, that's what I want for Christmas!' "

Having recently lost their health insurance, the Paxson's weren't even sure they could afford spending $30 on the special toy this year. But they got that and more - including a Walmart gift card to buy a much-needed baby car seat - thanks to the Wonderland's eye-popping Toy Shop and countless community donations that stocked it to the hilt.

Beatrice wasn't the only one tearing up. So was Child Life Department director Kristin Maier, after she and her staff finished setting up the toy room the night before the event.

"It just felt so right thinking 200-plus families will come in here and have what they need to make their holiday special," she said.

After becoming head of Child Life this past June, Kristin immediately began thinking of creating the Wonderland event at All Children's. For many years, kids have received donated presents for the holidays picked by the staff. But the idea of a special toy shop - one that would allow parents to select gifts and present them to their surprised children - seemed too fun and rewarding not to try.

Other hospitals around the country have staged similar programs with great results. So in July, Kristin got the ball rolling with a task force that included staff and parent. She consulted with counterparts at other hospitals to learn the best ways to make the Wonderland a success the first time out.

"It evolved from thinking about how to most honor our families in a way that they celebrate their traditions and their holidays," she explained. "And knowing that we're trying to meet the needs of all children, not just children who do the things the way that I do them or you do them. If they want, they can be Santa. Maybe they just want to take the presents back up to the room to give them out. Or if there are siblings they need to shop for, they can. This event becomes about them - not about us. And that's what it really should be."

To make things work, the staff settled on a system that allotted seven tickets to parents of a hospitalized child. The toys would be divided according to price range - with items of less expense going for one ticket and the most expensive merchandise requiring five tickets. If adult shoppers couldn't find something they liked from the mountains of goodies, they could use their tickets to purchase gift cards at establishments that included Target, Walmart, Publix and all manner of restaurants.

That way, everybody was guaranteed of finding something nice to brighten spirits on Christmas Eve or morning. Simply the sight of all the toys made many beleaguered parents feel better - knowing that a burning issue of how to find time to shop for presents had been completely taken care of by the hospital.

Not surprisingly, the first toy to go when doors opening Sunday at 11 a.m. was an X-Box 360 for five tickets. But there were still plenty of top-of-the-line gifts waiting for a home an hour into the event, with parents lining up outside the spacious hallway until their arrived to be escorted into the toy shop with a helper.

Among the five-ticket catches: an Esteban acoustic guitar and instruction kit, a Precious Pearls bicycle and a VCR/CD player.  Every table was marked with signs that indicated how many tickets the items cost, so shoppers could move through the room with ease. In addition to toys, books, CDs and DVDs abounded, along with colorful blankets, umbrella strollers - and a section devoted only to parents of babies in the NICU.

And directly across the hallway was the busiest Wonderland place of all: the wrapping room. Dozens of volunteers, many of whom have been wrapping presents for All Children's patients for more than 20 years. Once parents had made their selections, they simply walked in, handed the gifts to the helpers and let them to their magic. There was even a table manned by several volunteers busy installing batteries for any toys that needed them.

One veteran wrapper, Patti Carter, was thrilled with the new format because it allowed enjoyable and meaningful interaction with grateful parents.

"I've been doing this 22 years and I love this new way of doing things," she said. "We used to go to the auditorium and the gifts were brought to us. We wrapped them up but never interacted with parents that way. So I think this is a great way to do it. I've offered to let them do the wrapping themselves, but they all say noooo."

In addition to presents, every parent left with a survey from Child Life asking for feedback or suggestions on how to improve the event for next year. Antonio McCree of Orlando and his wife Pamela had nothing but glowing remarks to offer.

Their young son, Antonio Jr., had recently undergone successful heart surgery and the parents had hopes of being able to go home with him on Christmas Eve. One way or the other, they'll be going home with all the toys they hoped for.

"When we walked in and saw exactly what was going on, it was mind-blowing," Antonio Sr. said. "I saw hard times and tragedy when I went to New Orleans soon after Katrina to do demolition work. And just to know that they're doing this kind of thing for the kids here - it was overwhelming for me and my wife. This is totally a blessing, a miracle blessing. You couldn't ask for more. Just the experience we've had from the time that we got here up until this time - I would honestly say that there's nothing like it."

Nearby, Maki Stephens watched the last of her presents get wrapped. She and her husband Jimmy have a baby boy in the NICU who was born three months prematurely but could be going home any day - accompanied by a big bag of baby stuff.

"This was very helpful, very thoughtful and very organized," Maki said.

At another table, Mike Paxson had rejoined wife Beatrice. They still couldn't get over the sights that surrounding them.

"It's awesome, everything's been awesome," he said. "Beatrice was saying before this, 'We're never going to find anything when we get out of the hospital.' But we even found the DVD Bebe loves." He holds a copy of it: How To Train Your Dragon.

 "We never expecting anything like this," he adds. "Just to see it is totally amazing."

 A real-life Toy Story with an All Kids twist.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Parent Coffee: A Bold Tradition That Lets All Children’s Staffers Perk Up Spirits

Parent Coffee VolunteersJust past 7:30 a.m., the cart awaits on the basement floor beneath the All Children's Hospital cafeteria. The blue plastic carrier looks like any other, but this one is ready to roll on a special mission that brightens mornings and touches hearts with a simple cup of coffee.

It is stocked with containers of juice, Styrofoam cups, ice water, cream and, of course, the featured attraction: an extra-large container of freshly brewed java.

For exhausted parents who have spent restless, worried nights upstairs in their child's room - catching whatever sleep they can on fold-out beds and chairs, or staying awake to comfort their ailing loved one - the cart and the all-volunteer hospital team that pushes it will be a welcome sight, indeed.

Another shift of Parent Coffee, a program coordinated by ACH's Volunteer Resources Department, is about to get under way. The tradition began more than 20 years ago as an act of love and support by concerned staffers - back when an early-morning cup of coffee was harder for parents to come by - and is still going strong.

"Don't forget these - hot, hot, hot," says Ann Taylor, a catering staff worker who rushes over with a plate of just-prepared Danish pastries.

With that, the crew for this day's round - Brittany Nelms, a Volunteer Resources coordinator who oversees the initiative, Annual Giving secretary Waleska Lozada and new All Children's Hospital Foundation Executive Vice President Jenine Rabin - move into action.

It's no coincidence that all three are All Children's staffers. In fact, that's a prerequisite. Only members of the hospital can participate. They wake up early and give their own time to reach out with a gesture that may seem small, but overflows with meaning - both for the grateful adults on the receiving end and the volunteers making the rounds.

"It's really a lot of fun," Waleska tells Jenine, who's taking part in her first Parent Coffee run. "The parents are tired and stressed and they get really excited about seeing you sometimes. The ones who know about us will even put out signs like, 'Welcome Parent Coffee Team.' "

But many parents have no idea that the quiet knock on their door between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m. will bring someone other than a doctor or nurse. They've been thrust suddenly into a world of anxiety over an illness or injury to their child. Sleep, if it comes at all, can be interrupted by frequent visits from the medical staff through the night and pre-dawn hours. Minds are fogged with fatigue and worry.

And then comes the knock.

"Good morning, I'm a volunteer, would you like some coffee?" Brittany asks, after opening the door to a room on the eighth floor. Inside, a tired dad sitting on the couch nods affirmatively and offers a heart-felt, "Thank you!"

Door by door, the volunteer trio repeats the routine: a quiet knock and introduction, and inside the rooms a smile from a parent or two craving a caffeine boost - or perhaps just a cold drink to re-awaken their senses.

The pastries disappear quickly as the three women move through the unit, then take an elevator down to the seventh floor - starting with the oncology and hematology wing on 7 South. They enter through double-sealed doors that only let visitors pass through when hands are washed - and both doors must be closed before the next one opens to prevent airborne germs from entering,

"This floor can get a little tough," Waleska cautions.

Jenine knocks on the first door: "Good morning, I'm a volunteer, can I get you some coffee?" A young couple gladly accepts the offer. A few rooms down, a father holding a toddler in his arms tells Waleska he'd love some orange juice. A young mom, lying on a couch and covered by a sheet, looks up at Brittany with a look of appreciation at the unexpected special delivery. Another dad is simply too tired and preoccupied, and politely passes on anything from the cart.

The group makes its way back through the double doors to 7 North, where infants to teens recovering from surgery and their parents can be found. An older boy in a darkened room tells Brittany that his parents had just headed downstairs to the cafeteria to get a quick bite. "Well, tell them Parent Coffee will be back tomorrow morning," she replies with a smile.

Moments later, a mom named Brenda catches up with Waleska down the hall - her husband Lorenzo, who had declined any of the offerings, has changed his mind and wants a cup of coffee after all as he stays with his son, Lorenzo Jr. "It's so nice that they do this," Brenda says. "It's a little thing that makes you feel good."

Jenine has to leave a few minutes early to get to a meeting. But her first Parent Coffee experience has made a powerful impression.

"It's just so human," she says. "It makes me think why we don't do this more as people, not just in a hospital setting."

Soon after, Brittany and Waleska wrap up their rounds, buoyed by knowing they had brought some relief to weary parents in need of a boost. They ride the elevator back to the basement with the cart, where Ann Taylor greets them amid the busy breakfast-hour kitchen.

Ann doesn't get to see the faces of the parents, but she can imagine their surprise.

"You've got a sick kid and you're worried all night long - so this is like bringing them a soul food, something soothing for their spirits," she says.

Before heading off to their respective All Children's jobs, Brittany and Waleska catch their breath and fuel up for the morning with their own coffee and breakfast. And they talk about their path to All Children's - and ultimately becoming involved with the Parent Coffee.

Waleska, a New Jersey native, worked in the Neonatal Infant Care Unit for two years, organizing the department and ordering supplies. Her upbeat personality made her a natural to give NICU tours on behalf of the Foundation, and eventually opened a door there for her as a secretary for Annual Giving and the Children's Miracle Network Hospital Team. Once she arrived at the Foundation, she kept hearing about Parent Coffee and decided to tag along one morning. She was instantly hooked.

"It is such a great way to start your morning," she says. "It puts things in perspective as far as life is concerned straight off the bat. It makes me realize I have nothing to worry about. And I'm so fortunate to be able to do this for them."

Brittany, who grew up in Georgia before a move to Bradenton in high school, graduated from the University of South Florida and worked briefly in the All Children's technology department. When the opportunity arose to join Volunteer Resources arose this summer, she jumped at it. She's loved worked daily with volunteers who want to make a difference in people's lives. And though she had never heard of Parent Coffee when she joined the department, her new role put her right in the middle of coordinating it.

"So often, parents see someone they don't know come in the room and assume you're there to check on their child," she says. "The other day, a mom saw me and said, 'Oh, he's on dietary restrictions.' And I said, 'No, this is for you.' And she's like, 'Ohhh. I'd love some coffee.' "

Brittany and Waleska have formed their own team that makes the rounds once a month, just as other volunteer tandems do. But some mornings remain uncovered, depending on the number of participants. The goal is to have volunteers manning the cart every day, and perhaps eventually creating an evening round as well.

In the end, that's what makes the program unique: giving anyone - in any department of the hospital - a chance to get involved in the hospital's mission with kids and families first hand.

A hand that extends the essence of caring - one cup of coffee at a time.

Any staffer interested in becoming a Parent Coffee volunteer can e-mail Brittany Nelms at Brittany.Nelms@allkids.org.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Memorial Service Honors the Lives of All Children's Hospital Patients

ACH Memorial Service -2012
Mike and Megan Mellon hang an ornament in memory of their child, Caleb. 
They came from across town, across the state and across the deepest of emotional chasms, walking quietly into a dimly lit auditorium and the heart of a place where their hearts were so recently broken.

One family brought a stuffed blue elephant in a carry bag, the favorite toy of the baby boy whose life they would celebrate on this late Sunday afternoon in December. A father wore the pink hat of his beloved little girl. A couple came with a photo album of their infant son who brought them so much joy in such a short time on earth.

And everyone carried memories that burn strong of young lives gone too soon, like the white lights that glowed from a Christmas tree in front of the large room.

Or like some of the children they would soon hear about - 3-year-old Callie who dressed up as Cinderella and, in spite of suffering from a rare form of leukemia, roamed the hallways of her floor at All Children's Hospital and sprinkled the glitter she called fairy dust on other patients to make them feel better; 1-year-old Caleb who always laughed when wind blew across his face; and 7-month-old Ny'Asia who drew smiles for her distinctive mop of hair.

The tree would take on a special meaning for the guests before they left. But for now, at just past 4:30 p.m., all eyes were on the solemn procession of guests flowing into the Education Conference Center building at All Children's Hospital. The only discernable sounds were the soothing guitar instrumentals played near the tree by Tom Gombarcik, a member of the hospital's materials management department.

Gradually, family members and friends - along with doctors, nurses and hospital staff - took their seats for the start of an All Children's ceremony steeped in sadness and hope, loss and renewal. They had come for the 29th Annual Memorial Service to honor and remember the children who had passed away in the previous 12 months.

For some parents, the thought of returning to the grounds of the hospital so soon was too much to contemplate. But dozens of others knew that this was precisely where they needed to be to help in the healing process, in spite of the emotions that would no doubt come flooding back.

So they returned for the first time since the death of their young loved one - some still openly grieving, some buoyed by the chance to share stories of their child with others who have traversed the same painful path.

From the room's darkness, they experienced something extraordinary. The lives of those children returned in full illumination for all to envision - and embrace.

They came into sharp focus through the touching recollections of a handful of parents and family members selected to speak by the chapel staff of Reverends David Pitt, Tracey Smithson and Catherine Japhet. And they came through the 96 names projected one by one on a large screen at the end of the service, set against images of heavenly rays of light and accompanied poignantly by Josh Grobin's soulful "To Where You Are" and Alabama's "Angels Among Us."

But just as remarkable was another sight prior to the service. Around the room, you could find people who felt compelled to attend even though they didn't have to be there - various members of the All Children's medical staff who had fought so hard for these children, developing deep bonds with them and their families, and administrators from the Ronald McDonald House, where weary parents had often slept and ate to the maintain strength they needed to carry on.

Dr. Stacie Stapleton, who specializes in treating children with brain tumors, stood in the hallway with a colleague before taking her seat inside. This was the sixth year she had come to the memorial.

"Part of it's for me - just to have some closure to the patients I've lost over the whole year," she says. "But more than anything, I want to be there to support the family."

As the start of the service approached, Dr. Gregory Hale, a pediatric hematologist and oncologist, sat by himself in a moment of reflection.

"We're very closely involved with the patients," he says. "We're there at the beginning when they start their battle. We're with them for an extended period of time and certainly through some intense times. Typically we're still with the family at the time the patient dies, and I think coming here allows us the sense of remembrance for all the patients we've cared for over the year - and a time to see the family and re-connect and let them know that they weren't a number. That they're part of our team."

Pediatric Intensive Care Unit nurse Ryan Oliver, like all the nurses of the PICU, shares in the powerful sense of loss when a child dies. He helped in the care of a number of kids being honored in the memorial and shares in the sense of loss.

"I think we always say, they're not our kids, but in a way, they grow to be part of our family," Ryan says. "For a lot of us, we don't forget the kids as they pass on. Their names still come up. For a lot of us, it gives us a reason to come to work the next day. Some of our children spend a day, a week, a month - or a year of their life with us. And if a kid doesn't make it, we all go through the grieving process."

Another familiar member of All Children's medical staff stood alone by the wall in back of the room. This marked the 24th year that Dr. Perry Everett, a veteran critical care pediatric physician, has attended the service, only missing in years he had to be out of town or working.

"My philosophy has always been that I take care of the family, so this is part of taking care of the family," he says. He also echoed a feeling expressed by Dr. Stapleton: "But this isn't just for them - it's for me. All of this is part of human healing. And I get the sense that many of the parents and family members lose a huge burden when they come back."

With people still arriving, the pastoral staff decided to wait an additional 15 minutes before starting the service. Then, Rhonda Cofield, Director of the Integrated Care Management program, stepped to a podium at the front of the room with words of welcome and support. Tracey Smithson recited an opening prayer to the hundred or so guests in attendance. And David Pitt moved to the microphone to ask for a moment of silence, broken only by innocent voices of little siblings in the audience too young to understand what was unfolding around them.

"I'm grateful that there is a God who is here in this moment for us and is aware of each of your hearts - what you think in this moment and what you feel," he says. "And I guess it's not just in this moment, but every day as you remember your precious child. ..."

He found meaning in the very fact that so many had come to the service: "There's no question that by virtue of the fact you have chosen to be here today demonstrates to me a lot of courage, because you are walking through this moment again. There's nothing easy about coming back to the place where your child died, and we all recognize that."

Recognizing the children was what this day was about. So the pastor then invited a pre-selected group of parents and relatives to step forward and speak - members of a half-dozen families who had expressed a desire to share the stories of their child. The tales that followed conveyed the glow of brief lives bravely lived, painting pictures in memories and anecdotes that washed over the room with an overriding spirit of power and love.

Some parents spoke with a sense of calm and ease, others with the heartache and tears still choking their words. One mother couldn't speak at all amid the pain. So she  
stood silently alongside her mom, while her grandmother recollected what made their family's beautiful baby girl so special.

While every story was different, each evoked a tangible image of a child that had forever touched many others no matter how long their live had lasted.

Some of those who spoke during the service - and lingered to talk after it had ended - expressed another similar sentiment: They enjoy talking about their late child, and draw a strength from doing so that actually helps sustain them through the grief.

There was Linda and Roger Anderson, who had driven three hours from Melbourne - with 8-year-old son Coleman and 6-year-old daughter Caitlyn - to celebrate Callie, the little girl who loved to dress as Cinderella.

She was diagnosed with leukemia at 2-1/2 and would eventually undergo a bone marrow transplant, spending a total of 389 days hospitalized before losing her battle in July. She liked to wear pretty dresses, her mother explained to the audience, because they made her feel prettier after she lost her hair during treatment.

"If I dressed her in something plain, she would say it wasn't pretty enough," Linda reads from her notes.  "We remember Callie running the halls in her Cinderella dress and clicking heels, sprinkling her fairy dust on the sick kids to help them feel better. That was her way to get out of her room, because she had a job to do - to take care of the other kids. And then she'd sprinkle fairy dust on the doctors and nurses to help them take good care of all the kids."

After the service, Linda would share a story of a 15-year-old girl from Pakistan in the room next door. She never wanted to leave her room. So Linda encouraged Callie to visit the girl, say hello and sprinkle her fairy dust. "I'd tell the girl, 'Come on, Callie's out walking, you need to come out, too," Linda recollected. Finally, the girl decided she could get out her bed and walk up and down the hall, too - an important step in recovery. "She told me Callie was the one who had inspired her to do it," Linda said. "She touched a lot of people with her great spirit and how hard she fought."

She and her husband will never forget that. But there is another memory that lasts well, and one they always relate with the story of Callie: the gratitude to the All Children's doctors, nurses and support staff that helped them each step of the way.

"The nurses and doctors always went out of their way to help us," she said. "But it wasn't just at the hospital. It was at the outpatient clinic, where we spent a lot of time, too. They just did a great time of helping us feel good and getting us through that difficult time."

Valerie Brown, a minister in Bradenton, spoke on behalf of her granddaughter, Alexis Salem, memorializing Ny'Asia - the infant who died at seven months. She was born with a heart defect that made her vulnerable to a virus that ultimately took her life.

"Ny'Asia was not with us a long time but she was like a burst of sunshine in our lives when she was here," she said of her great-granddaughter. "She was a beautiful little girl and her hair was her signature. She had a head full of hair, unusual for a newborn. She was a very well-loved baby, but after seven months the Lord saw fit to take her back home.

"I want to say that I appreciate All Children's Hospital. I'll say that there is no place like All Children's - all the staff, the nurses, everyone who played a part in Ny'Asia's life, I want to say that I thank them and I appreciate them so much. They were patient. They were kind. They were compassionate. So we want to say thank you, thank you, thank you."

Megan and Mike Mellon of St. Petersburg only enjoyed the presence of their bubbly son, Caleb, for 54 weeks.

He was born with an array of serious issues, including suffering from hydrocephalus (water on the brain) and an omphalocele, leaving his organs exposed on the outside of his abdomen. After surgery to repair his omphalocele, Caleb was up well enough to return home for a time. But he took a turn for the worse after shunt surgery, then developed an airwave infection and never bounced back.

Yet even amid so many challenges, Caleb had a radiant personality and an intuitive way of connecting with people before he finally began to fade.

"Caleb came into the world fighting for his life," Megan told the audience in a steady voice. "We were all unsure of his ability to triumph. In fact, the months leading up to Caleb's birth were spent preparing for his possible death. But Caleb proved to us that he was a cheeky little child and that he was going to rise to the occasion."

Megan and Mike then recited an array of sentiments, cast through Caleb's eyes, that captured the sunny way he saw the world. Each took turns reading lines such as these:

"The sun is bright, so close your eyes and squint tight and allow the light to warm your soul."

"The wind is funny. When it sweeps across your face, it tickles. So every chance you can, enjoy it."

"Hair, it's meant to be played with. Faces, they're meant to be touched."

"Smiles are contagious Give it a try."

"Play, play and play, and if you don't feel good, just play some more."

"Just because it was a short life, does not mean it was not everything God intended it to be. Life does not have to be long to be perfect."

When all the parents and relatives were finished speaking, Tracey returned to the podium to read a poem that likened the children to shooting stars, illuminating the heavens. And then she explained the symbolic, closing phase of the ceremony.

Upon arrival, each family had been handed a heart-shaped ornament bearing their child's name. As that name appeared on the big projection screen, family members were invited to walk to the front of the room and place the ornament on the lighted tree. Following the service, families could then return to tree and take the ornament home with them as a treasured keepsake of the child.

As the names rolled by and the music filled the room, parents slowly approached the tree that had suddenly become a new link to their child - reaching out to branches that seemed to reach back with a reassuring message that a lost life lived on.

When the final name had appeared and the last prayer had been read, families were invited to stay and talk, and enjoy refreshments in the back of the road, including cakes inscribed with the words, "Angels Among Us."

The Mellon family, including young sons Josh and Williams, had Caleb's ever-present blue stuffed elephant, which they take on all their family outings. There were no tears for them this day, only smiles and warm memories for baby Caleb - and a sense of feeling enriched and uplifted by the event. "We love talking about Caleb - and even though we miss him, we cherish the opportunity to share him with others because he taught us so much," Megan says.

And she expressed something that could have spoken for many on this day.

"We found it so cathartic to be with other moms and dads who have walked where we walked."

To travel a road through darkness and into the light, their way guided by the memory of a lost child who - on this December day - burned bright for all to see.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Tampa Bay Buccaneer Doug Martin and Teammates Visits Patients and Families at ACH

Tampa Bay Bucs Visit ACHTampa Bay Buccaneer tailback Doug Martin makes his way into the open, just as he has done so many times this season. Striding three steps ahead of the pack, the young rushing star cuts to the right and makes his big move - from a long corridor on All Children's fifth floor into a hospital room with a special little fan awaiting.

Three floors above, Bucs cornerback Leonard Johnson is about to display some nice hands - slapping five with a bubbly 9-year-old girl suffering from cystic fibrosis, then doing the same with her excited 7-year-old brother as their grateful mother beams.

The two NFL newcomers normally maketheir mark on the football field. But right now, they are part of a large contingent of Buccaneer rookies paying a visit this past Tuesday to patients and parents - part of a holiday tradition that makes the day just a little merrier for kids and families in need of a boost.

It's one time they're happy to be the visiting team.

Their charter bus pulls up at 11:20 a.m. in the circular drive by the front entrance and, moments later, about a dozen first-year Bucs and a handful of Tampa Bay cheerleaders pile into the lobby. The only required head gear: red Santa caps - complete with the team's familiar pirate logo. The players don them immediately upon arrival, part of the game plan for spreading good will on their day off from the weekly NFL grind.

After a brief welcome by Stephanie Hall, Children's Miracle Network Director for All Children's, the 14th Annual Bucs Rookie Club visit is officially under way. The group splits into a handful of smaller squads to reach as many rooms as possible. And for the next hour or so, the focus for the big men in red will be more on Blitzen than blitzing ¬- more on Dasherthan dashing for daylight.

Passersby point and smile at the sight of the festive football entourage - accompanied by three carts that brimmed with stuffed toy bears inside Buc backpacks, cameras from the news media, Bucs and hospital, and a cadre of ACH escorts to facilitate the in-room meetings with patients.

The first stop is a room on the fifth floor where Buc spirit is soaring as if it's a sold-out Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.

Inside a crib, 6-month-old Evan lies calmly and comfortably after a nap, sporting a gray Buccaneer onesie for the occasion. There will come a day when the young heart patient will grasp the significance of what transpired Tuesday. But for now, the most thrilled individual in the room is little Evan's dad, Dan.

A die-hard Bucs fan, he can hardly believe the sight before him: Martin and standout linebacker Lavonte David - wearing protective yellow gowns and blue latex gloves ¬- grinning and waving at his son by the crib railing.

Every Sunday this season, Dan and wife Karen, who shares her husband's passion for the team, have dressed Evan in his baby Buc outfits, put on their own team shirts and hats and rooted like crazy for Tampa Bay. They watch on the hospital room TV when the Bucs are on the road or aren't blacked out locally, and listen faithfully on the radio when there's no game telecast.

"He's got more Buc outfits than not," Dan tells the trio. "In fact, his first outfit was a Bucs outfit." Karen, a nurse at Lakeland Regional, couldn't get off of work to be there for the memorable visit, but she made sure a few extra, newly washed team onesies were ready just in case a sudden change was needed. "We've got 'em lined up, ready to go," Dan assures his guests.

Martin, who became the Bucs' all-time rookie rusher three days earlier, wiggles Evan's bootie-covered toe. David, a leader of the defense, marvels at the baby's happy demeanor. And the two players who do battle on the gridiron each Sunday listen as Dan relates the many medical battles his infant son has been through.

Evan was born June 1 with a condition called hypoplastic left heart syndrome, which meant that the left half of his heart was under-developed and not pumping blood. An ultrasound identified the problem, so Dan and Karen knew they would be facing a difficult road. There were some frightening episodes along the way. But after two surgeries to re-route his circulation, Evan is doing remarkably well and beginning to thrive - even with a third operation on the horizon.

"He's a tough little dude," Dan said.

And a true Buc fan in the making. The erasable board in the front of his room contains his medical goals for the week, along with the scrawled phrase: "Meet Buc Players!" An autographed photo of former Buc running back Mike Alstott hangs on a nearby wall, while stick-on lettering adorns the window with the exhortation: "Bucs wins / Please Santa."

Dan makes some small talk with the players he never imagined meeting and will one day tell Evan all about. The group poses for pictures around the crib, and the players sign a Buccaneer football Dan has in the room.

 "I appreciate you guys taking the time - I know you're busy," he says.

"No problem, just spreading some holiday cheer," the soft-spoken Martin replies.

Moments later, they're off to spread more with other patients on the hall, while Child Life director Kristin Maier leads Johnson to the eighth floor, where a 15-year-old boy waits eagerly in his bed. Johnson knows all about All Children's, having grown up nearby in Clearwater, and his outgoing personality makes him a perfect athlete ambassador to kids spending their holiday season at the hospital.

As the former Largo High School star nears the room, a nurse passing in the other direction - RN Mary Konyndyk - recognizes him and heaps praise on Johnson's mother, Shenique Harris, for something she'd read in the paper: how the mom makes her grown, NFL-playing son still do his weekly chores while living with her at his childhood home in town.

Johnson shares a laugh with Mary and then arrives at Tyler's open door. Instead of knocking, he peers playfully around the door frame to surprise the boy inside, at this moment sitting up in his bed wearing a No. 24 Cadillac Williams jersey.

Tyler, a quiet teen, loves football and plays in his back yard at home, but he's not able to play in school, due to his ongoing struggles with cystic fibrosis. The heavy mucus that forms in his lungs has limited his physical activity but not diminished his passion for watching his favorite team, the Bucs.

"How ya doin', Tyler? I heard a lot about you," Johnson begins, then hands him the bear and backpack.

"Here's a token from us to show how much we care about you," he continued. Johnson kept the conversation going, not shying away from talking openly with Tyler. He asks the youngster to tell him about his disease - and Tyler obliges. Johnson listens intently, then offers some words of support.

"They told me you're still able to interact with kids and run around and play football - in fact, I heard you go out three times a week to throw the ball around," he said. "I just want to encourage you to keep playing. And no matter what, whatever you're going through, just be active and stay positive."

Tyler's day has been made - and a few snapshots that follow with Johnson and Buc cheerleader Tricia are icing on the cake.

A few doors down, Johnson makes his next stop - the room of 9-year-old Leilani, another cystic fibrosis patient. The native of Oahu, Hawaii has a mega-watt personality and captivates her visitors from the outset. "Hi!" she exclaims, and enthusiastically accepts a gimme-five from Johnson. Her 7-year-old brother Keoni gets in on the high-five act, too, and each are momentarily speechless when Johnson hands them their gift bears.

"This is awesome! Mine is a football player," blurts out Keoni.

"Mine is a cheerleader!" announces Leilani.

Their mother, Sarana, can hardly believe the sight unfolding around her - a real-life Buc player interacting with her children. And seconds later, there are even more, as Martin steps into the room, along with free safety Sean Baker, defensive end Ernest Owusu and tight end Danny Noble.

This is quite a turn of events, indeed, for a mom who, along with her husband, worried that Leilani wasn't receiving the best care in Hawaii. "She was in and out of emergency rooms many times," her mother said. The parents researched the possibilities and Sarana was thrilled to learn of All Children's. "I saw that they had this great place for kids with cystic fibrosis," she said. What's more, her husband's family lived in Manatee County - an easy drive to the hospital.

"I knew that All Children's was exactly what we needed," she says. So the family recently picked up and moved 4,700 miles to St. Petersburg for Leilani to get treatment at ACH. "I'm so happy because she's doing better than ever," Sarana added.

She and her family watched the Bucs play on TV last Sunday but Leilani never imagined she would wind up meeting some in person. After posing for pictures, Johnson asks Leilana about life in Hawaii and tells her he hopes to visit there one day. But this visit is the one that matters right now.

"Leilana, I'm so happy to hear you're doing much better." Johnson says when it's time to go. "Happy holidays."

A final round of high-fives followed. And then in a flash, like the other famous guy in red who works on Christmas, they disappeared from view. They headed downstairs for the trip back to Tampa.

"This really puts things in perspective," Johnson recounts outside. "You give a little time and conversation and it changes their whole day. It's like the old saying: The more you give, the more you receive. And we got a lot from the kids."

Minutes later, the bus pulls out of sight - with a new class of Buc rookies perhaps feeling a little different about life, after a memorable trip making spirits bright.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Tree of Life - Helping Us Remember Special Patients

 

 The tree went up quietly last Thursday afternoon in a small, fifth-floor conference room at All Children's Hospital.

A Tree of Life

There were no blinking lights or festive decorations like the countless ones already decked out for the holidays around town and beyond, no fanfare or laughter. But the spirit of giving and love still filled the room in a powerful way, amid the silence and the tears.

A handful of nurses from the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit gathered in front of a beautifully crafted cut-out of a tree - a swirling, storybook design with leaves blossoming and roots extending toward a simple message at the base:

Organ Donation / from life to life

It was a simple reminder of a harsh reality that nurses of the PICU face on any given day: that some of the children whose lives they touch by pouring themselves into their round-the-clock care - children who touch their hearts in return - don't heal or ever get to return home.

Yet at the same time, there was something uplifting and hopeful about this four-foot-high artistic addition by the front door, giving comfort to the intensive care nurses as they gazed at it.

The tree would be a new way to honor those young patients who, while having reached the end of their own lives, had helped enhance or make possible life for others.

In a warm, understated way, it would celebrate the memory of a child who had passed - and a child with new chance at living - through the priceless gift of organ donation.

"For many of the nurses here, unfortunately part of their job is to go through this heartbreak of losing a patient," said

PICU director Melissa Macogay, sitting at the conference-room table a day after the tree arrived. "For many, this makes it worth it somehow. It gives it a bigger picture. This is why we do this, because in turn, somebody else may save a life. Sometimes, that's the only good that comes out of some really horrific weeks."

The idea for the tree began with PICU nurse Traci Gregory, a member of All Children's Organ Donation Advisory

Council, who attended a LifeLink organ donation conference earlier this year. The conference utilized the symbol of a tree and the theme of butterflies to signify organ donation.

One the PICU donor families from All Children's was in attendance and the father addressed the conference, explaining what a source of comfort it was to know his late daughter's heart lived on in another child. He went on to explain how she loved butterflies, and how every time he sees one, he thinks of her and feels buoyed by her memory. Traci and her entire table were in tears as they listened.

She returned to All Children's with a burning desire to introduce an organ donation symbol that would represent the lives lost but also sustained each year.

She envisioned a tree of life, with butterflies that could be attached to it - each one bearing the name of a child whose organs had been donated. At a crowded meeting of PICU nurses in their second-floor team room, Traci presented her idea excitedly - driven by her passion for the topic and spurred by something deep inside. Everyone instantly loved it.

"It was the middle of a shift and all these ideas just kept growing," she said.
The only question was how to represent the tree most effectively. A brainstorming session followed, with suggestions first for a picture, then a painting, and finally a three-dimensional representation of a tree that could be moved around if needed.

Melissa contacted Creative Services Director Mike Sexton, who conveyed his vision for the design to a company that produces graphic arts projects, and later formulated the words and type. And late last week, the months-long project culminated with delivery of the tree of life inside the room used for exchanging patient reports, eating meals and taking short breaks from the constant pressure of the job.

Melissa and several other nurses were there to see it. They couldn't muster any words at first. Instead, they simply stared at the little tree: lost in their own thoughts of children they had fought and fought to keep alive - and then, of coming to the eventually painful point of preparing those children to give life to someone else.

As news of the tree's presence spread, more and more nurses stopped in the room to see it.

"Everyone who walked in, it would just bring them to tears," Melissa recalled. "People just looked at it - and felt its meaning."

But sometime around 6 p.m. that same day, the meaning of the tree grew unexpectedly more profound.

A young boy had lost his life. His organs had been donated to help other children. Only a few hours after arriving, the tree had a butterfly - with small white wings bearing the hand-written first name of the child whose life had ended but given flight to others.

"It's surreal how those things happen," Melissa said softly.

Other nurses felt the power of the tree as well, in their own ways.

"It's a good way to show that what we do doesn't end here, that life goes on," said Brittany Krehely.

A few feet away, Liz Halterman found meaning in the tree for fellow nurses as well as the children whose lives it celebrated.

"Everything we do, and all the emotions we go through, it's almost like tree makes us feel appreciated," she said.

Then there was Traci.

She wasn't at work last Thursday to see the creation she helped bring about. When she arrived Friday morning and stepped into the conference room, she noticed the tree - and then grasped the impact of the butterfly in a wave of emotion.

"My heart skipped a beat," she said. "It really hit home."

In fact, it hit home for a deeply personal reason ¬- a part of what fueled her resolve to create the tree memorial in the first place.

Five years ago, Traci suffered a devastating loss with the death of her 11-year-old son, Hamil, from complications of cerebral palsy. He was born prematurely at 25 weeks and  spent the first six months of his life in All Children's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Affectionately nicknamed Papi, he became an organ donor at All Children's, giving life and hope to other children.

"It meant so much to me to be able to donate," she said. "It gave me something when I had nothing, a little bit of hope for someone else, I guess. I still think about the kids who got his organs and how they may be doing now, how old they may be and when I get organ recipients in the unit I always think of him and the parents who donated on their children's behalf."
 
There's something else to know about Traci. She studied to become a nurse because of Hamil, initially hoping to join All Children's NICU and become part of the caring network he experienced at All Children's. But there were no openings when she earned her degree after his passing, and instead got a job in the PICU. "That's where I firmly believe I was meant to be," she said.

She went to work in the same unit where her son's organs were donated, giving comfort each day on the job - along with her fellow PICU nurses - to other sick or injured kids and their families.

Just as the tree of life is now a source of comfort to the caregivers. 

"It so important for the nurses to know the impact they are making," Traci said, "and to know that the life we weren't able to save, maybe in the end it can save many others."

The staff is currently discussing ideas for how to visually represent the children who receive organs - perhaps on an attached scroll or with butterflies placed in a cloud above the tree.

Whatever the solution, the tree already has taken on its own life, quietly heartening the nurses of the PICU amid the heartbreak that comes with the territory.

"Nursing anywhere deals with loss and sadness, and difficulty and stress," Melissa said. "That is the life of the ICU, unfortunately. Half of our population is scheduled types of patients who will do well. They'll come in. They had a great surgery. They'll recover. They'll go home.

"The other half is just related to what happens in the community. And unfortunately, that's accidents. That's kids falling out of buildings. That's kids falling in pools. It's the nature of life. That's what we do here."

And why a simple little tree, far removed from the holiday-season glow, shines so bright.