Thursday, January 24, 2013

Miss Florida, Laura McKeeman, is a Hit With All Children’s Hospital Patients

Miss Florida with ACH patientEven at age 3, Recolon Jumpp Jr. knows a special guest when he sees one. 
     
And the visitor is suddenly walking his way while a nurse holds him at her station on the 7th floor of All Children's Hospital.
   
"A princess!" he blurts out through the protective mask he wears, a year removed from a successful bone marrow transplant.
    
Not a bad guess by the lively little guy with the extra 'P' in his surname - which could easily stand for personality. The pretty woman wearing a silver and gold crown and giving him a big smile is reigning Miss Florida and Tampa Bay area resident Laura McKeeman, fresh off a Top 15 finish in the Miss America Pageant last week in Las Vegas.
    
McKeeman has been a frequent presence at All Children's, making the rounds to lift the moods and offer encouragement to sick kids. And it barely takes a minute for the magic to unfold once she steps inside the doors.
     
People of all ages stop to wave, chat or ask if they can pose with her for a snapshot. Some recognize her from her job as a TV correspondent covering the Tampa Bay Rays for SunSports and Fox Sports Florida, some from her recent national splash in the Miss America competition. And some - youngsters like Recolon - simply think they're in the presence of a storybook princess.
   
For all her success and visibility at just 24, the University of Florida journalism graduate conveys a natural down-to-earth quality. She's a serious talent who doesn't seem to take herself overly seriously - conversing easily with the children and parents she meets during her hour-long, door-to-door tour of the cancer and hematology floor.
    
"Oh, you have cool blue streaks!" she tells an 11-year-old girl named Angelique, whose blond hair sports colorful highlights.
   
"You are so pretty," she says to another 11-year-old, Michelle, an aspiring fashion model who has lost much of her own hair due to her treatments.
    
The words carry real meaning to each youngster, and similar upbeat greetings bring a smile to all the kids she encounters. At each room, she stops to talk for as long as the children want, has camera-phone photos taken with patients and parents, and signs official Miss America pageant photos of herself holding a Fox Sports microphone.
    
During a stop down one hall, she asks Cheyenne Key, an 18-year-old Citrus High student, what she wants to do for a career. When Cheyenne tells her that she hopes to go into sports medicine or sports management, McKeeman offers some help.
   
"I'm a sports reporter so I work with people who do a lot of that - it's awesome," she says. "Add me on Facebook and we can talk about it."
   
Another girl, 15-year-old Celina Cook, perks up when McKeeman walks into the room. Celina, who has lost all of her hair in her battle with leukemia, asks her surprise visitor if she knows last year's Miss Delaware, Kayla Martell, who lost her own hair to a rare condition called alopecia areata. She competed in pageants wearing a wig, yet would sometimes visit sick children without it.
   
 "I'm in the 2012 class so she wasn't in my year, but I got to meet her because I wanted to - I hunted her down," McKeeman says with a laugh. "She brought a lot of good attention to her condition and people learned a lot about what it was. She's an awesome person."
   
Celina then has a request.
   
"I don't know if it's okay to ask, but when you're not busy, you can definitely do my makeup because yours is so pretty," she says.
  
 "Of course, I'd love to," McKeeman responds.
   
Celina's mom, Susie Ramey, can't wait to take a picture of her daughter standing next to a real Miss America contestant. Before leaving, McKeeman writes a signed note to Celina on her Miss Florida photo to leave as a keepsake. The message:  "You are gorgeous!"
         
McKeeman has been living a whirlwind existence lately - both with the weeklong build-up to the Miss American competition to a non-stop appearance schedule since returning. And that's on top of her normally busy life as a sports correspondent for Fox Sports, which utilizes her for regional telecasts of college football and basketball games in addition to her interview and reporting work during Rays home games for Sun Sports.
     
She's still processing the once-in-a-lifetime experience in Vegas, and savoring all the new friendships she formed there with other contestants.
    
"The whole time you kind of have an emotional weight on you because you know that somebody's life is about to change dramatically forever," she reflects. "I remember specific moments where we were waiting back stage, the first time we got to walk on the Miss America stage - times when we were even sleeping on the Miss America stage when we were in rehearsal. But there's such an iconic nature to the entire thing that it makes you understand how lucky you are to be there.
    
 "Of course, there's the competitive aspect of it that can wear you down but I think as soon as I got there, all of that lifted away from me and I just thought, 'Man, I'm at Miss America, I get to enjoy this. And it's more likely to have a son play in the Super Bowl than a daughter to be in Miss America. That's an accurate statistic. And you just want to do the best you can to represent."
   
McKeeman, a lifelong dancer, performed a ballet in the talent portion - wistfully realizing it may be the last time she performs publicly, but glad she could go out on the biggest of stages and give her family a lasting memory.
   
"There was nothing I would change about any aspect of my competition," she adds. "I didn't advance past the Top 15, but it was something I could walk away from and feel that I'd done everything I could."
    
Even without the ultimate title, McKeeman is constantly reminded of how people are drawn to a contestant wearing her crown in public. There have even been times when she's forgotten to take it off her head, and only notices it when passing motorists honk her in traffic.
  
"There's kind of a fascination with that in this country," she says. "I never take it lightly. There are some days you think, 'Oh man, I have to put this crown back on,' but as soon as you realize the impact it has, it's so easy to want to do it."
    
Especially at a place she has been a frequent presence, All Children's.
    
Back up on the 7th floor, she pops into the room where talkative tyke Recolon is staying. He yammers away, showing her a car game on his iPad, asks to touch her crown and gives her a hug goodbye. On the way out, she passes a young couple pushing a stroller with their 6-year-old daughter, Lillyann.
   
"Lily, do you know who this is?" asks her mom. "She's a beauty queen."
    
"Yeah, but you're more of a beauty queen than I am," McKeeman says, handing the little girl a card and a signed photo.

McKeeman feels good about the visit and a chance to have talked with so many kids and parents.

"Today was so wonderful - I felt like we were able to make connections with some of the kids, spending a little bit more time with them," she says. "It was really neat to see some of the personalities. I think a lot of times we assume that if children are ill, they won't have the same personality.

"But just seeing their bravery and fighting through what they're dealing with physically, and not letting it affect them emotionally, was amazing. They were full of life. It really makes you realize how important it is to stay positive in your own life. It makes you think, 'Wow, what am I complaining about?' "

McKeeman has no complaints how her career is going these days. "Fox Sports has put me in a good position, she says. "I do feel like I've earned some of it, but I've also been fortunate for some of it. I think I've worked really hard, and they've noticed that and rewarded me for that. I feel very fortunate for the opportunities I've gotten, and I try to make the most of every one of them." 
    
Soon, it's off to another appearance in town for Miss Florida - with the next college basketball assignment looming for Fox Sports, another Rays season just around the corner and the memories from a special morning at All Children's staying with her as she goes.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Spider-Man Thrills Patients and Washes a Few Windows

Spiderman at ACH
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It was a scene right out of a Hollywood superhero sequel.

At 7:45 a.m Thursday, a blanket of haze hovered over the ground as downtown St. Petersburg and beyond stirred to life. Just then, with the sun burning through the morning mist, a stealthy figure in red and blue stepped over the low wall atop All Children’s Hospital and began his spine-tingling descent down the 10-story building.

All that was missing was a blast of dramatic theme music and opening credits.

The Amazing Spider-Man was in the house – or rather, on the side of it.

And there wasn’t just one Peter Parker alter-ego on the premises. There was a trio of Spideys getting down to business, lowering themselves window by window – not with trademark web shooters but with the tools of their own dangerous trade: ropes, pulleys and small wooden platforms.

The crew of High Rise Window Cleaning of Clearwater was about to give young patients, parents and staff at All Children’s an unexpected thrill by dropping in – quite literally – with a comic book cameo.

Their bold mission this day: to wipe out grime.

Only a few minutes earlier, Robert Powers and his brother John Powers along with Merrill Hunt donned the Spider-Man outfits that their boss, High Rise owner Steve Connolly, had ordered for the occasion. It was just another morning on the job, but with a very special twist.

“I’ve never done anything like this, and I’ve been washing windows for 29 years,” said Robert, pulling the suit over his street clothes. “But doing this for the kids, it feels great.”

 “It’s going to be awesome,” Merrill chimed in. “Usually when we’re cleaning windows, the kids are kind of mesmerized – they’ll watch and point and laugh. But I’m really excited to do this as Spider-Man and see their reactions.”

The reactions were as quick and widespread as you might imagine when the star of four movie blockbusters in the past decade shows up – even if it’s to clean glass rather than battle bad guys.

Below, sidewalks filled with clusters of onlookers pointing to the startling sight of the Fantastic Three scaling down the concrete exterior of a tall building. And in no time, a helicopter circled the sky with a news crew filming the event. But the reaction that counted the most was the one inside the building.

Word traveled fast among nurses on the first stop, the general medical surgery floor of Eight South. They’d been alerted of the visit by the Spider guys and made sure that patients and families were ready to catch the unusual sight. A little boy too weak to talk smiled and waved as the famed crime-fighter suddenly appeared in his big picture window, swaying back and forth on a his rope, waving back and placing his hands on the pane as if attached in true Spiderman style.

On the oncology and hematology wing on the seventh floor, grandparents Richard and Catherine Allen of Lakeland couldn’t believe their eyes as they stayed with their sleeping granddaughter. “Does his mother know he’s doing this?” Catherine quipped.

Soon, the spidery crew dangled outside the windows of the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit on the fifth floor, then moved on when their work was done. “I was so excited – I felt like a kid,” said a visitor, Cherie Bjaland, who took in the show. “A few doors down, grandmother Paulette Counts was sleeping on the couch below the window. She hadn’t heard anything about any unusual guests swinging by and awoke to the sight of Spider-Man in the window.

“At first, I didn’t see his rope and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” she said, laughing. “I thought I must have been dreaming!”

Several minutes later, on the sidewalk facing the hospital’s south wall, 7-year-old Kaiden peered upward with his parents, Alan and Dawn, 4-year-old sister Danica and grandmother Kathy. The costumed crime-fighters had disappeared back onto the roof, but suddenly a familiar masked character came into view, ready to climb back down to clean another row of windows.

“There he is!” Kaiden yelled as a noisy news chopper continued to loop overhead.

The distraction couldn’t have come at a better time for Kaiden, was arriving for surgery involving his tonsils. “It’s really exciting for him,” said Dawn. “He’ll definitely be telling his teacher and classmates about this.”

Kaiden jumped in unprompted to underscore the statement. “I’ve seen the Amazing Spider-Man, Spider-Man 1, Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3!” he blurted out.

And now Spider-Man in triplicate, with his very own eyes.

“I just think it’s wonderful that they do this for the kids,” added his grandmother.

The idea came about when someone at All Children’s saw a picture of another children’s hospital outside of Florida make a splash with their own Spiderman window-washers. That was passed on to ACH environmental services director Michael Dansberger. Windows outside the upper floors of the hospital are cleaned once a year, and Dansberger promptly got the ball rolling.

“We thought it was a great idea so we linked up with our window cleaning vendor, High Rise, and they were very excited about doing it,” he explained.

High Rise owner Connolly loved the idea from the get go.

“I said, ‘Hey, if I can make the kids smile, sure, I’ll do it in a heartbeat,’ ” he said. “I had a hard time finding the costumes, though. But luckily, I found a company online that had three of them”

The costumes and masks posed no hazard to his employees, he said, although eye holes had to be cut on a mask to accommodate glasses worn by one of the men.

“I brought scissors and duct tape in case we had to make last-minute alterations,” he said. “It’s a risky business but we know what we’re doing.”

Connolly stayed on the roof until his Spider-Man contingent disappeared over the side, then went inside the hospital to watch the delighted reactions of kids and families.

Holly Ott, clinical coordinator for the All Children’s Child Life Department, described how much the happening meant to those kids and families undergoing such stressful times.

“Being in the hospital can be a really challenging experience for patients and families,” she said. “What we try to do is normalize the experience and I think that Spider-Man is actually an extraordinary experience for children. It really makes it very therapeutic time for them and their family.”

“I think All Children’s Hospital always goes the extra mile to make every experience for our patients and families special,” she added.

When the Spider-Men finally made it to the ground, there were plenty of hugs and smiles with kids who had been watching from the sidewalk.

About 10:30 a.m., Robert Powers – or could it have been Peter Parker? – walked back inside the All Children’s lobby in full costume, holding his water bucket. A handful of patients and grown-ups waved enthusiastically as he walked past – and if you could have looked under his mask, you’d have seen a big smile. He made sure that he waved to the entranced onlookers before resuming his high-flying feats outside.

Of course, what else would you expect from a super hero?

“This is a blast,” Robert said by the elevators. “We always like it when the kids notice us, but today – it’s been something else.”

Even for Spider-Man, only one word could describe the experience.

Amazing.