A Day in The Life: Behind the Scenes of the 30th Annual All Children’s Telethon

The moment arrived with a wave of raucous applause and cheers that sent decibels and emotions soaring off the charts Sunday evening. It was a wild scene that blended the fever pitch of a Super Bowl victory with an election-night headquarters celebration - all in the name of children.

A whopping check presented by Walmart for $986,058 pushed the total over the top just before 6:30 p.m. Sunday. An instant later, the final tally hit the big tote board for the 30th annual All Children's Telethon - a grand total of $4,154,917. And prolonged pandemonium erupted on the set inside the Education & Conference Center, hosted by the familiar News Channel 8 anchor crew of Gayle Sierens, Keith Cate, Steve Jerve and, in a surprise return after six years - on horseback, no less - Bob Hite.

CH 8 Telethon Team
View More Photos
It was the culmination of months upon months of painstaking work from all corners of All Children's.

There was Stephanie Hall, the Children's Miracle Network Hospital Program Director at All Children's - marking her 25th year nurturing relationships with all of the Telethon's corporate and civic donors. There was the Emmy-winning trio of veteran Telethon producer Ann Miller, who tirelessly scripted the touching content and endless details of the show; creative services director Mike Sexton, whose colorful graphics and stirring Telethon theme song helped give the event added heart; and videographer Bill Greene, who filmed and edited the poignant pre-taped segments aired throughout the program.

And there were so many others, from ACH board members to department directors to staffers and volunteers working side by side for a common cause.

"It doesn't matter what your position or title is at the hospital with your day job," says Darrell Lee, Strategic Communications and Interactive Services Director, overseeing the Web and social media efforts from start to finish.  "When it comes to the Telethon, everyone assumes a role and gets the job done. It is an amazing event."

In this case, the combined efforts resulted in the fourth-highest Telethon contribution total ever, particularly noteworthy since there was no Taste of Pinellas this year to serve as a simultaneous fundraising catalyst.

The day was filled with distinctive sights that began to unfold well before showtime and lasted until sign-off at 6:30 p.m. Highlights ranged from the return of 28-year-old former patient Tommy Duckworth, who spent the first six years of his life in the hospital to a nostalgic, late-afternoon reunion of three Telethon titans.

Former All Children's president J. Dennis Sexton, former ACH Marketing and Foundation executive Joel Momberg and longtime show host and Channel 8 sports anchor, Dick Crippen reminisced, while rocking babies together in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in a nod to the show's roots.

It was a Telethon to remember. And here's a look at some of the behind-the-scenes - and in-front-of-the-camera - happenings that combined to make it that way.

* * *

By 6:30 a.m., the ECC has sprung to life. WFLA-Ch. 8's anchor team is busy getting set for the telecast - Gayle Guyardo sits in front of a boom, applying makeup. Rod Carter and Leigh Spann stand nearby, smiling and staying loose. In another room, the first group of volunteers who'll work the banks of phones receive final instructions. The busy pace and bright lights provide a sharp contrast to the calm, subdued hues only minutes away on the hospital's sixth floor - in the heart of the NICU.

This is where Channel 8 weekend morning anchor Yolanda Fernandez is preparing for her first live segment of the day, accompanied by a mobile production crew directed by WFLA veteran Phil Hill. Fernandez sits and chats with Amanda Fish and David Delmotte, the parents of premature boys Logan and Aden, born seven weeks premature but doing well enough to make their TV debut.

Having time to talk 15-20 minutes prior to the segment accomplishes several things. It gives Fernandez a chance to get the gist of the family's story - beyond the note cards she has been given - and it allows the parents to relax a bit in front of two TV cameras before Hill signals that the segment is live.

"That pacifier is bigger than he is," Fernandez says, smiling, as she engages the parents in conversation. The signals begin to come: "Four minutes to go ... two minutes to go ... one minute." Just then, Aden begins to cry. "Oh, you're going to start getting fussy now?" jokes his father.

At 7:37 a.m., Carter introduces the spot from the ECC set and Fernandez shifts right into gear: "Hi, good morning Rod, we're in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, and I'm with the proud parents of these beautiful twin boys," she begins. The three-minute portion comes off without a hitch. The boys cooperate by not crying at all, and the parents tell Fernandez how grateful they are for the care their babies have received. "The communication is amazing," says David. "They make sure you know everything that's going on and why they're doing stuff." Adds Amanda: "It's like a second home."

Back in the ECC, the phones are already ringing steadily.

* * *

Next up for Fernandez, Hill and Co., a signature touch provided by the staff of All Children's Environmental Services department: towel animals.

A room on the seventh floor has been decked out with all manner of little white towel critters, an art perfected and practiced by the many folks who clean the hospital rooms on a daily basis.  There are bunnies, dogs, ducks, swans and turtles - even little rays in honor of the major league team in town.

EVS workers are all trained in making the cotton-based creations - a sight guests are more accustomed to seeing in cruise cabins or high-end hotel rooms than in a hospital. But the animals are a way of brightening spirits of young patients, and the staff takes great pride in going the extra terry-cloth mile to do just that.

Martha Drew, housekeeping manager, had a hard time securing an empty room for the segment because the hospital was nearly full the night before. But Room 728 opened up, so that's where the video crew heads now. Soon, two of Drew's experts join Fernandez to give her an on-air lesson - Cecilia "Cece" Barnett and Stephon Anderson - and explain the significance the animals have in the grand scheme.

"The animals are for the kids," Stephon says. "At All Children's Hospital, we are all about making sure that when they come, they get better. And we make these animals to help them feel more comfortable when they come and make them feel more at home."

Cece tells a story of a little boy staying in one of her rooms. "He was sad because he missed his dog," she explains. Cece promptly reached for several towels and, minutes later, brought a smile to the child's face by presenting him with his very own towel dog.

* * *

So it goes throughout the day. Fernandez takes viewers on a wide range of stories inside the hospital. She spends time with 16-year-old Celina Cook, recovering from a type of leukemia called AML that demands a harsher treatment plan. Celina, wearing a protective mask, talks about playing intense games of UNO with other teens - and even some of the nurses - in the game room. "I just feel very safe here because of all the supervision, always seeing how you're doing and checking in with you," she says. "And always seeing what they can do better."

A segment with two Guatemalan parents, Stephanie and Marco, and their premature baby boy showcases the All Children's International Program. Stephanie was the first mother in the program to come to All Children's and have her baby delivered at the hospital - at only 28 weeks - rather than giving birth overseas and then transporting the infant. Both parents express their gratitude for the life-saving care their baby Marco has received. Dr. Roberto Sosa joined the parents, stressing that Marco was past the most difficult time now. "Now he's eating well, and breathing by himself, so we're very happy," he says.

Then comes a trip to the Simulation Lab and an interview with Sim Center and Clinical Research Director Tina Spagnola, a tour of the Emergency Center's pediatric transport units, and a visit with pediatric emergency physician Dr. Patrick Mularoni, minutes after finishing a shift.

"How busy are Sundays here - what's your typical day like?" Ferdandez asks.

 "We've been real busy today," Dr. Mularoni responds. "I started at 6 a.m. and all day we've had a trickle of children coming in to be cared for. One of the things that's unique about our hospital is because we're a pediatric hospital, because we take care of some of the sickest kids in the area, we've seen kids from all over the place. Earlier today, I had a kid fly in on a helicopter from Cape Coral. I've seen sick children from St. Petersburg who require cancer treatment, where they have to come here for care as well. And I just got finished sewing up the chin of a little girl who cut it on the side of a swimming pool. We're busy because of the specialized care we provide."

Still, it's adorable 5-year-old Mae Parker who threatens to steal the show. Mae was adopted by her parents in a Chinese orphanage and underwent her first heart surgery in Beijing. Last Wednesday, she had an open-heart procedure at All Children's and came through with flying colors.

By Friday, she was talking up a storm and enjoying a tea party with family. And two days later, she was beaming at a pair of WFLA TV cameras, enjoying another tea party with mom Lauren and grandmother Joyce by her side. "She's doing fabulous - you'd never know she had heart surgery," Lauren says, adding that the medical staff fell in love with Mae. Though she spoke no English 15 months ago, Mae talks plenty now - and even handles the segment sign-off like a pro, following Fernandez' lead and proclaiming, "Back to you Gayle!"

Bob Hite

In fact, another showstopper will soon take center stage. Former Channel 8 anchor Hite, now retired and living the ranch life in Colorado, had saddled up during the Saturday night sneak peek of the Telethon on WFLA and started "riding" to St. Petersburg. The bit culminates with video of the popular ex-newsman on horseback as he nears All Children's - and then dismounts to enter the show in chaps and dusty cowboy boots.

It is an emotional experience for Hite, seeing many of his former co-workers for the first time in a half-dozen years since his retirement. But his eyes filled with tears, and his voice broke, as he spoke on air of his three grandchildren, all of whom have received care at All Children's.

"The Telethon has been an annual tear event for me since the beginning," Hite says in a quiet moment off the set. "Long before I had two children, much less grandchildren, you were still moved by these kids and their families - and the devotion of their parents and this hospital staff. You know, I tear up pretty easy when kids are involved - and old friends. I wouldn't have missed this for the world."

Meanwhile, being part of the Telethon holds special significance for a newcomer to the event: Jenine Rabin, Executive Vice President of the All Children's Foundation. She grew up in nearby Seminole watching Channel 8 anchor Sierens host the Telethon each year, and remembers urging her father to listen to the WFLA team and call in a pledge.

Now, joined by her two young daughters, Verity and Chance, Rabin is in the Telethon spotlight herself as the event builds toward its big finish. She stands beside Sierens, teaming up to raise money in a live interview about role of the Foundation and the vital importance of the Telethon.

"Today is one way of giving support, but we work with donors all the time who have an interest in doing something specific," Rabin says. "And we're happy to work with them to make their dream come true."

Many dreams do thanks to the contributions that pour in during the Telethon and throughout the year.

One of them is vividly depicted on screen - the story of a miracle baby and his inspiring return as a thriving adult.

* * *

For sheer power, it's hard to top the appearance of Tommy Duckworth.

Tommy with Dick CrippenTommy was born in November 1984, with much of his intestines on the outside of his belly. All Children's surgeons had to remove part of his intestines and then carefully place the rest back inside his abdomen. He spent his early childhood at All Children's, celebrating his first five Christmases here, even learning to walk by pulling a specially modified IV pole around the hospital walls.

Fittingly, Tommy is interviewed by Crippen, who had rocked him as a fragile baby in the NICU 29 years earlier. He works today as a nutritionist at St. Anthony's and gives credit to All Children's for making his journey possible.

"I'm just living life and enjoying life, and am blessed to be here," he says. "And I'm blessed to come back and share another 30 years with All Children's."

Crippen quips that he may not be around for that, then looks into the camera and says, "This is a guy that you helped. Those of you who have contributed through the years to All Children's Hospital, you gave him, literally, life."

* * *

The Telethon tour de force takes place in the kind of rocking chairs that Tommy once was comforted in.

It's where the Three ACH Amigos - Sexton, Momberg and Crippen - closed the live programming from the hospital shortly before 5:30 p.m.

Sexton, Crippen and Momberg

Momberg was the man with the idea of launching the Telethon, and did so with the blessing and help of All Children's president, Sexton. Crippen was the host who always opened the show with Sexton, rocking babies in the NICU.

"This was always my favorite part of the show, but I never got to do it until now," says Momberg, as the three enter the NICU and take their seats. "I was always jealous of those guys!"

When the cameras begin to roll, Crippen acts as emcee as Sexton and Momberg talk about how far the event has come through the years.

Sexton: "One of the great things that this has brought is a recognition around the whole region of the wonderful things we were doing way, way back - and now All Children's Hospital they have is on an international scale as far as the skills of the doctors and nurses and the research that's being done. This is what we dreamed about. People say, 'You didn't dream this much.' Well, we did. It really, fortunately, has turned out to be everything we wanted it be."

Momberg: "It's been unbelievable. Of course, this is what it's all about - the babies. We were talking earlier about 30 years, and coming back, and seeing the families and young adults who are now just phenomenal. It's just such a great feeling to come back. It's like giving birth to the Telethon - you put it together, and then you watch your child develop. Now, it's a mature Telethon. It's just beautiful."

* * *

Then comes a moment not in the script.  As the segment ends, Momberg and Sexton prepare to head back to the ECC for the big Telethon finish. That's when Sexton notices a familiar woman at the front desk of the NICU checking in about her grandson - a tiny preemie inside the NICU.

 Joel Momberg & Dennis Sexton
Dennis Sexton and Joel Momberg visit the Morris baby in the NICU
By sheer coincidence, she sat in front of him and his wife at church that same morning. The woman was wearing the official 2013 Telethon T-shirt, so the Sextons introduced themselves and learned her story. She is Kelly Demsey and had just flown in from Delaware after her daughter Amy Morris, a Ft. Myers resident, gave birth prematurely at the hospital. It was especially troubling since the daughter had two other pregnancies that ended with the babies not surviving.

Kelly explained that she was having people sign her T-shirt, and would donate a dollar during the Telethon for every signature she collected. The Sextons wished her well and soon headed for All Children's.

Now, some eight hours later, she has crossed paths again - and the former ACH president immediately recognizes her.

He calls out to her, and notices she has collected a dozen or so signatures on her shirt by now.  To help her cause, he reaches for his wallet and hands her a twenty-dollar bill. Momberg does the same. She hugs them both, then asks if they would like to see her grandson inside the NICU.

Returning to the ECC, with all its mounting excitement, can wait 10 more minutes. The two men, long the heart and soul of All Children's, follow the grandmother to an incubator. It holds newborn Roman Isaac Demsey Morris, who has a new chance at life thanks to the hospital they helped so much with the creation of the Telethon 30 years earlier.

Sexton and Momberg smile at the baby, the only sound coming from a beeping monitor nearby. The quiet room is a far cry from the excitement sweeping through the ECC several blocks away, where the tote board will soon jump another million dollars and trigger a thunderous ovation.

Away from the cameras, amid the dim lights of the nursery, the scene is as priceless as any on this day, with the hearts of a little NICU baby and the biggest of Telethons pulsing to a shared beat.

Music Therapist Kelly Tyrrell Brings a Tuneful Healing Touch to ACH Patients

Kelly Tyrrell
View More Photos
You might see her walking the All Children's hallways with a guitar in hand, or pulling a cart packed with tambourines, shakers and two large binders of lyric and chord sheets. They are the tools of the trade for music therapist Kelly Tyrrell, whose world moves to a constantly shifting beat as she helps add harmony to the lives of newborns to teens.

The countless tunes she sings and strums are an oasis for patients and parents alike, lifting spirits and bringing smiles in times of pain and uncertainty.

But there is much more to Tyrrell's job than making music, even though she does that beautifully and with an engaging and varied style that seems to establish an instant connection with kids and families.

Her work demands  a knowledge of psychology, physiology and science as well as music. And it requires not only a college degree but, increasingly, additional specialized certification, such as the kind Tyrrell earned so she can help the fragile infants from ACH's Neonatal Intensive Care unit.

On a recent afternoon, you could find her in the dim lights of the NICU, where she stands by a high-tech incubator holding a baby born with a drug addiction - a condition known as NAS, short for Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome.

With firm but gentle strokes, she uses several fingers to massage the month-old girl's forehead and back while quietly singing the chorus of "You Are My Sunshine."  Several feet away, the girl's parents watch attentively, marveling at the impact of the soothing technique - known as Multi-Modal Stimulation - Tyrrell is utilizing.

"Please don't take my sunshine away," she and the parents intone ever so softly. They repeat the song again and again as the child, who had been crying fitfully minutes earlier, settles into a peaceful sleep.

Some 30 minutes later, Tyrrell enters a room on another floor where a 10-year-old girl with a genetic condition and serious respiratory infection lies in her bed, hooked to tubes and unable to speak. But she connects with her eyes, which convey a spark of enjoyment as Tyrrell picks up her guitar and launches into Smash Mouth's "All Star."

Soon after, she sits on a multi-colored mat in another hospital room across from 2-year-old Bradley, a little boy with Down syndrome who is thoroughly enjoying Tyrrell's version of "The Wheels on the Bus." He picks up plastic shakers and tambourines she has brought along and keeps time to the rousing rendition.

It's only a small portion of a typical day for Tyrrell, and a big reason she loves the job ¬- even if most people don't realize what goes into being an effective music therapist.

"I will never get tired of the question, 'Well, what do you do?' because there's so much that goes into it - and very few people fully understand what it really is," she says. "I absolutely love what I do, so I enjoy telling people about it. My basic explanation is this: music therapy is using music to reach non-musical goals.

"We use music more than we teach it, and the beauty of it all is that you can tailor it to be whatever you want it to be in order to help a patient."


It may look like she's performing as she belts out rock or pop chart-toppers to older ACH patients or hams it up singing children's classics to toddlers, but she most definitely is not.

The truth is, Tyrrell has never been comfortable in the spotlight. "I love interacting with people but I hate performing," she explains. "If I'm in a performance situation, I get nervous and my voice shakes - it's nerve-wracking. But if I'm singing and playing music to make somebody feel better, it's a totally different story. I'll rap, sing classical music or do a country song by Hank Williams or Johnny Cash. If I want a child to get silly, I get silly. If I want a child to be serious, then I get serious, too - whatever I need to be. I love the therapeutic part of it. I'm cut out to do what I do."

Tyrrell draws from a rich musical family background growing up outside of Albany. Her father plays guitar and her mother the piano, and both sing. Her older brother lives in Nashville and does music, and two younger siblings also sing and play instruments. "It was a perfect training ground growing up - I learned a lot about music from my parents, and then my schooling reinforced and fine-tuned things," she says.

Tyrrell's journey to All Children's took a roundabout route, with a pivotal course correction at the collegiate level. Initially, she wanted to go get an undergraduate degree in recording and producing - working behind the scenes. But after attending a community college to take music business classes, she concluded the music biz wasn't her cup of tea and decided to pursue a major in Music Education at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.

Her goal was to become a teacher, and the notion of music therapy hadn't even occurred to her. But prior to starting fall classes at Appalachian State, a friend coaxed her into taking one last community college course: intro to music therapy.

"I fell in love with it," she says.

Tyrrell also happened to read an article about a music therapist who worked with a woman whose ability to speak was lost due to a stroke. Yet the therapist was able to get her to sing in their sessions, since that is controlled by a different part of the brain than the area that that impacts language. Through music therapy, the woman's speech eventually returned. 

"I looked at that and said, 'That's exactly what I want to do," she recalls. "I want to use music to make people feel better. So when I arrived at Appalachian State, the first thing I did was visit my advisor and ask, 'Hey, you don't have a music therapy program, do you?' "

The advisor promptly informed her eager student that the school was known for having one of the best music therapy programs in the country. Tyrrell switched majors on the spot and, three years later, earned her degree. Along the way, she completed six  "practicums" - including hands-on work with fifth graders with intellectual disabilities and older adults with Alzheimer's - as well as a full, six-month internship at a medical center in Fort Pierce, splitting her time between adult patients and babies in the NICU.

"I had a fantastic internship supervisor who modeled a bunch of situations that I needed to handle and would process with me after my sessions with a patient," Tyrrell says. "She'd say, 'Tell me three things you did well and something you want to improve on next time.' And if I had a really bad session, she'd say, 'Tell me three things you did well and something you want to improve on next time.' My education was fantastic."

Before receiving her music therapy certification, Tyrrell had to pass a board exam that measured her expertise in music theory, guitar and piano playing, sightreading, aural skills and voice - but also questions overlapping nursing, anatomy and psychology. "As music therapists, we're going to have to have some basic knowledge of the body and, say, where certain muscles are," she says. "And there's a mental health component, too. It's a hard test."

In 2011, Tyrrell completed her Florida music therapy certification and immediately went about getting her specialized NICU certification to broaden her range. It was an easy decision, given how much she had enjoyed working with the tiny NICU babies during her internship. She earned her additional credentials through Florida State University in a rigorous weekend training program held in Orlando, but her first job had nothing to do with NICU work.

She was hired as a music therapist in a private pediatric practice in Sarasota. Most of the children she worked with had life-limiting illnesses or autism, and a few had cancer. And many of them had received care at All Children's. One of her co-workers was a child life specialist who was an acquaintance of All Children's Child Life Director Kristin Maier.

She just happened to be looking for a new music therapist.


Tyrrell applied last fall, got called back for a second interview and then was brought in for a hands-on "audition" of sorts. She donned a protective mask and gown and showed up at a hospital room to sing and interact with a sick child.

As it turns out, the patient's parents were also in the room, along with a Child Life specialist on hand to observe the session - and they wore masks and gowns, too. In minutes, she and the entire group were busy singing a lively kids tune. Just then, six more people in masks and gowns entered the room.

Tyrrell assumed they were friends or family members and promptly involved them in singing along - getting them to say their names during a "goodbye" song. That's when she learned they were all doctors, who had stopped by to see the patient - unaware Tyrrell would be there.

"They were on a special team and were just having a blast singing and dancing around," she recalls. "Of all the times for me to have my 'hands-on' session - I couldn't have planned it better if I'd tried."

Maier had no doubt she had the right person for the job.

"When we were recruiting for the job, we were looking for somebody who would be able to grow the position in the NICU, so we wanted somebody with the NICU certification - and we probably had six applicants who met the on-paper criteria," Maier says. "But what I loved about Kelly is I would describe her as the full package.

"She has the ability to communicate and build relationships. She's got that real gentle soul, where she connects with the infants and the families. She's very versatile and can work very effectively with little infants all the way up through our adolescents. And she's well-researched; she knows what's current in the research and can speak to what is music therapy scientifically.

"But she doesn't even need that, because her actions speak louder than any words. And she has just done wonders at the bedside."

Tyrrell, who started in November, couldn't be happier in the job, which is funded by St. Petersburg businessman and music industry executive Bill Edwards.  She bases out of an office on the 7th floor, just outside the hematology and oncology wing. The small room is filled with guitars, ukuleles, percussion instruments and more. In addition to her songbooks, which she constantly fills with new requests from patients, a trusty iPad filled with song lyrics and chords also comes in handy during patient sessions.

"It has been better than I could have imagined - I absolutely love it," she says.  "I love the team and the patients. Even if we're having a rough day, I like that it's hospital policy for us to smile and make eye contact, because it totally changes the atmosphere. And if there's something I think a patient needs, I have yet to have somebody say, 'No, we can't do that.' "

Tyrrell builds her daily schedule on recommendations from Child Life or nurses, who recommend patients for her to see - and develops her own list as well making the rounds. Her day can change at the drop of a hat when a new call or email comes in, suggesting that she stop by a new patient's room or teach worried parents Multi-Modal Stimulation techniques.

Recently she visited a teenage girl who had attempted suicide. The girl didn't want to talk to anyone, but Tyrrell learned that she wrote poems to express how sad or angry she was. "I went in and we basically began putting her lyrics to songs, then recorded them and put them on a CD. She went from 'I don't really know who you are and I don't care' to 'this is great!'  Right as we were doing music, she posted on Facebook something like, 'music therapy is awesome!' Experiences like that are so fantastic."

Scanning her schedule, Tyrrell sees it's time for a visit with a 12-year-old named Michelle, who lost her hair from chemotherapy treatments in advance of a bone marrow transplant. Michelle has been feeling ill all day but perks up when Tyrrell, wearing a mask and gown, arrives with her music cart.

She has worked up Jason Mraz's song," I Won't Give Up," at Michelle's request. And as Tyrrell strums the melody, the young girl sits up on her bed. Oblivious to the maze of tubes and monitors connected to her body, she sings the melody in a soft voice.

"I won't give up on us. Even if the skies get rough...."

She is suddenly lost in the hopeful song, gently accompanied by Tyrrell as another healing moment of music unfolds on the floors of All Children's.