Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A Hair "Razing" Experience for a Good Cause

Their locks tumbled to the ground, but the smiles never fell from their lips.

Dr. Gregory Hale and Dr. Allison Messina of All Children's Hospital took their seats side by side Wednesday evening - and beamed at the packed crowd cheering them on in Bright House's Cut For A Cure Charity Challenge. There was no turning back now even if they'd wanted to.

The buzz in the air over their participation in the event - benefitting both the Vinny Lecavalier Foundation and Pediatric Cancer Foundation - was about to become a buzz in the hair.

They'd each been thinking of this moment for weeks, after signing up to shave their heads to benefit pediatric cancer research and raise awareness for the cause. And here they were in a VIP level of the Tampa Bay Forum, set to part with their hair in a show of support and solidarity with the children they care for each day.

Normally, ovations inside Forum are showered upon the hometown NHL club this time of year. But teammates from the Lightning - including captain and franchise great Lecavalier - were busy adding to whoops and hollers for the first doctors ever to participate in the four-year-old Tampa Bay event.

They were part of a six-person team that kicked off the proceedings, and would be followed by a Bolts contingent consisting of Lecavalier, B.J. Crombeen, Alex Killorn, Matt Carle and Teddy Purcell and by four other teams of bold, soon-to-be-bald souls.

"It's awesome that they're here," Lecavalier said of the doctors. "I talked to them earlier. They're really excited. It's a big night."

Dr. Hale, Medical Director of Pediatric Hematology and Oncology and Bone Marrow Transplant at All Children's, watchedDr. Allison Messina and Dr. Gregory Hale his light brown coif slowly vanish as electric clippers removed thick swatches of hair. The job was expertly overseen by a professional stylist but the special touches came courtesy of one of his patients: a bubbly 5-year-old, Anna Manolakos, who is doing well in her battle with leukemia.

Dr. Messina, an infectious disease specialist, stepped into the cordoned-off cutting area pumping her fists in the hair like a boxer entering the ring. Several days earlier, she had joked about her thick, dark brown hair that can present its issues. "If anything can cure cancer it's my hair," she said. "My hair has challenged everything I've thrown at it - straighteners, perms, curling irons. My hair has no qualms about any of these things."

Little by little, her mighty curls fell away with the help of a hair professional and 8-year-old Madison Cavanaugh, a former All Children's patient whose leukemia is in remission. "I think it's just so great that they're both participating, especially for a woman to do this," said her mother, Lisa.

Each doctor admitted to a small case of jitters upon arriving just before 6 p.m. for their scheduled 6:45 appointment.

"A little bit of butterflies," Dr. Hale remarked, standing alongside wife Verna and daughter Victoria. "But it's kind of exciting to see how many people have showed up in support of raising funds for pediatric cancer research.

"I'm excited," added Verna. "I've been married to him for 25 years and I've never seen him with really short hair."

 Victoria, a student at Clearwater Christian College, was looking forward to texting photos from her phone to her two brothers, Zachary and James. "We can't wait to see the outcome," she said. "It's probably going to be a shock."

Of course, it was all for a most worthy cause, which is what prompted Dr. Hale and Dr. Messina to get involved to begin with.

"It first came up when I was at an event with Vinny and they were unveiling some of the new T-shirts they had designed for our cancer patients," he explained. "And at that event, he was mentioning that he was going to do that. And somebody suggested that it would be a great idea if we did it together. So it wasn't really my idea to do it. But after I thought about it for a couple of days, I decided it would be a really good idea."

Dr. Hale realized that getting over his initial misgivings about buzzing off his hair offered an array of payoffs. "It's a nice opportunity to raise awareness for pediatric cancer, and it's a fundraising tool to raise money for pediatric cancer research," he said. "We're all about that here and we have a lot of research protocols for patients here at All Children's. And it's a visible way to make an impact and show that you're standing with your patients."

Dr. Hale initially set a goal of raising $2,000, with anyone encouraged to donate by visiting the Web site: http://fastercure.kintera.org/cutforacure/ghale. That determination to make a difference any way possible typifies the man leading ACH's pediatric cancer program, one that continues to make great strides in its treatment and research mission.

"When people ask me what I do and I tell them that I'm a pediatric oncologist, usually the follow-up question is, 'Why do you do it?" he said. "In my mind, the response is, 'Well, why wouldn't I do it?' Because it's actually a great field where kids have an outstanding chance for cure, around 80 percent. The other thing is you work with kids and adolescents and their families, and you become almost like part of their family."

Dr. Messina is driven by the same passion. She had also been looking for a new way to make a difference and learned that Cut for A Cure was scheduled in a month. She signed up immediately.  It just seemed like a natural extension of her longtime commitment to helping sick kids any way she could.

"For many years, I've done various things to raise money for medical research," she said. "I've run marathons for Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. I've participated in some fundraising events for kids with cardiac disease. And I've always known that there have been people who've shaved their heads. I always thought it was a great, exciting opportunity. Once I expressed interest, it just took off from there."

She was also drawn to the opportunity knowing that so few women take part in it. "I'm somewhat unique in that most of the people who sign up to get their heads shaved are men, so I thought that being a woman and shaving your head might actually be a little bit more exciting," she said.

Dr. Messina subsequently learned that Dr. Hale was already on board, so she joined his team. And they re-set their fundraising goal at $3,000.

As the event approached, her excitement was still mixed with some trepidation,

"Definitely, but I think that ultimately it's not that big of a deal," she said. "Especially as I think about the patients who undergo chemotherapy and all that they go through, it kind of puts it in its place. It's sort of a silly concern.

"And I'm also quite excited about the fact that I do plan on trying on various wigs. I think that's going to be fun. But no, I don't have a lot of hesitation about it. Actually, I'm more hesitant about what it's going to look like when it's growing back. That maybe gives me the most pause."

Being in the spotlight is nothing new for Dr. Messina. She's a singer in a rock 'n' roll band on the side that raises money for children with cardiac defects. "Nobody would actually pay to hear us play," she quipped. "But to raise money for kids, sure."

Both she and Dr. Hale found themselves front and center in spotlight Wednesday. Brittany Zion, a feature video reporter for the Lightning and a social reporter for Sun Sports, served as emcee. She did in-progress interviews with the doctors and all the team members through the course of the event, while cameras zoomed in for close-ups beamed on countless Forum screens.

When it was all over, the doctors were escorted to a side hallway to pose for official "after" shots, while doing their best to get used to the new looks.

"He looks a lot more normal than I do!" a smiling Dr. Messina said of her colleague.

Asked how she felt, the normally talkative doctor got right to the point: "I'm kind of speechless."

Dr. Hale's daughter was preoccupied taking camera-phone shots to send to her brothers, while his wife assessed her husband's barely there hair.

"Well, I've never seen him like this, and we were high school sweethearts," she said. "But I think he looks good. We're really proud of him for doing what he did."

"I love it," said Victoria.

Then there was Nancy Crane, executive director of the Pediatric Cancer Foundation, who loved that that Dr. Hale and Dr. Messina took part.

"It is so important for doctors to step forward and show these kids that they too can be bald," she said. "These are the first physicians we've had, and we're hoping to grow that number. I think it's great that we're seeing teams form. We're seeing teams of families, fathers and sons, businesses. It's great for spirit."

In fact, Dr. Hale hopes that more of his medical co-workers from All Children's will join him and Dr. Messina next year - and in years to come. For a first year, with little advance planning time, they did pretty well: more than $3,300 in pledges by Wednesday night with their Web site open for donations until May 3.

"Next year, we've got to get all the hematology-oncology physicians involved," Dr. Hale said. "Hopefully they'll see it isn't as bad as they thought. Or maybe it's worse than they thought! But I think we can get a lot more people involved."

One thing's certain - you can count on a big buzz.

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