Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Picture Perfect Day for Patients at All Children's Hospital

Halle GardnerLittle Halle Gardner sits on her mother's lap, flashing a smile that overshadows the big purple bow on the side of her head.

The festive ornament is attached to a matching purple hairband for a reason: the pretty 2-year-old, named for actress Halle Berry, has no hair to hold the bow in place. It is just starting to grow back after months and months of chemotherapy to treat the sarcoma that has turned her young life and that of her family upside down.

The good news is that Halle is finally starting to feel better again. And she knows just what to do when professional photographer CJ Shelker prepares to snap another shot on the second floor of All Children's Outpatient Care Center.

"Cheeeeeese," Halle blurts out, joined enthusiastically by 4-year-old sister Telan as the girls' mom, Cynthill, looks into the lens with a smile that speaks volumes of her relief and happiness. It's a moment frozen in time to treasure and hopefully to celebrate for years to come.

A moment created by the national organization known as Flashes of Hope, which goes from hospital to hospital taking high-end, portrait-session photos of pediatric patients facing the toughest of challenges amid life-threatening or life-limiting illnesses.

A moment orchestrated on this recent morning at All Children's by the organization's Tampa Bay chapter - a family endeavor that gives hundreds of other families a brief reprieve from turmoil, pain or worry, and brings a positive memory into sharp focus.

For Cynthill, today's session has special meaning. A year earlier, Halle was photographed by Flashes of Hope when she was very sick and struggling through a scary time. Those pictures captured a lasting image of love and the spirit of a brave, beautiful baby girl. And even amid the uncertainty, Cynthill and her husband found that the photo session provided a source of comfort. "It did, absolutely," she says.

Now, she wanted to come back for a second sitting to show Halle in a new light.

"This will be more of a picture of triumph, to show her happiness this time and that she's done well," Cynthill says.

Marc Silbiger, a co-director of the local Flashes of Hope, and wife Susan are more than happy to oblige with another portrait session. Marc, a retired brokerage executive who divides his time between Tampa and Cleveland, shares the director duties with daughter Dana Hudepohl as well as her friend, Michele Gibson. Dana, a national magazine freelance writer, isn't along for this day's visit to the hospital. But Susan, has come to organize the photo-session paperwork and mandatory releases.

And two more key volunteers are on hand. Tampa cosmetologist Brooke Curtis will provide professional make-overs for any girls or moms who want to look their best. And CJ, who has photographed music celebrities and fine art images all over the world, will capture the images as lasting keepsakes.

It doesn't take long for the magic of Flashes to take hold. Another patient, 14-year-old James Auxier, has arrived with his mother, Nancy. He is in the midst of chemotherapy treatments for a brain tumor.

James was feeling well enough to ride his bike five weeks earlier, but fell off and suffered a skull fracture. Still, he's been keeping a positive attitude and both mother and son are looking forward to the photo shoot and having some top-quality pictures to share with his Marine Corp older siblings, David and Jennifer. "This is just awesome," Nancy says after Shelker takes a round of photos. "It's just so nice that they do this for the families - it means so much."

Off to the side, Marc beams at the sight. He seems to derive as much enjoyment in providing the service as the patients and parents who benefit from it.  The Tampa Bay chapter has now photographed nearly 800 children since being started in 2007 by local photographer Joseph Gamble. Marc and Dana succeeded Gamble in 2009 after starting out as volunteers. But there's more to the story than that.

The national Flashes of Hope Program was founded in 2001 by a former Cleveland television producer and reporter, Allison Clark. She and husband Kip wanted to make a difference after their son underwent successful treatment for cancer. Their vision led to the first Flashes of Hope photo shoot at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland ,with an ambitious mission to help children suffering from life-threatening illnesses see themselves in a more positive light and to raise money for pediatric cancer research.

"There are about 12,000 children diagnosed with cancer each year in the United States," Marc says. "And this year, Flashes of Hope is going to photograph 7,000 of them. Our goal is to do photo shoots of every kid suffering from cancer, all around the country, until pediatric cancer is cured."

Marc was instantly drawn to the organization after retiring in 2008. "I was having some difficulty adjusting," he recalls. "I thought, 'What am I going to do - play golf all the time? That seemed ridiculous. I really wanted to do something meaningful."

Dana had read about Flashes of Hope in a People magazine article and that got the ball rolling - leading them to the local organization that is now a driving force in their lives, and touching the lives of so many others. Since taking over as chapter directors in '09, they've done more than 800 shoots at All Children's and other locations around the area. Gamble, who originated the local chapter, now volunteers as a photographer.

"The bottom line is it gives the family an unforgettable experience," Marc says. "The family is going through incredible trauma. It's a very depressing time. But sitting in on a photo shoot, you see the joy come back to their faces - the mother, the father, brothers, sisters and patient. It's just irreplaceable."

Tampa Bay's Flashes of Hope crew visits All Children's Hospital once a month, taking new shots and delivering the portrait keepsakes for patients and families. With help from nurses and members of the Child Life department, the Flashes staff never has any shortage of subjects to photograph - often doing as many as 16 sessions on a visit, compared to the early years of 4-5. The All Children's Foundation helps fund the chapter, which utilizes a cadre of top area photographers volunteering to take the pictures. The Beach Branch of the All Children's Guild also supports the endeavor through their Legacy Fund.

"Once we tell them our story, they want to be involved," Marc says. "We have some photographers who work once a year, a couple who work twice a year. But we never have trouble getting photographers."

Dana savors the chance to do work together as a family unit. "It's very special coming together with my mom and dad to help other families who are just like us," she says. But more than anything, she takes heart in being able to bring Flashes to so many kids and adults in need of an emotional lift.

"It hits me how much these photo sessions mean to the families when we get letters or emails from the parents telling us how much they treasure the pictures or when a crying toddler who's been through a tough day transforms into a giggling ham in front of the camera," she adds. "In these moments, I feel so much satisfaction that we are able to provide joy during such difficult times."

One of the highlights on the latest visit comes while making the rounds on the unit for hematology and cancer patients. An 11-year-old girl, Michelle, has lost her hair due to chemo treatments and is getting ready for a bone marrow transplant in the coming weeks. Before getting ill, Michelle had done some fashion modeling and aspires to be a professional model when she grows up. With Brooke's help, Maria gets a complete makeover, including a long black wig. She looks and feels great for the photo. "I'm so excited for her," says her mother, Maria. "This helps her not think about being sick."

With the flash of a camera, another moment of hope is savored, another priceless memory preserved.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Rays’ Mascot Helps Send Off Louise Belich After 40 Years

Louise Belich, RN Retires from ACHBack in early March 1973, newly released American Graffiti and The Sting were raking in big bucks at the box office. Roberta Flack's Killing Me Softly With His Song was sitting atop the pop charts. And a nurse named Louise Belich was busy learning the ropes of her new job at All Children's Hospital.

All would share something in common. Like the movies and the song that accompanied her All Children's debut, Louise would become an enduring  classic - a No. 1 hit in the hearts the nurses and doctors she worked with, and the young cardiovascular patients she helped and cared for so passionately.

Forty years to the date of her first day of work - March 12, 1973 - she officially spent her final few hours on the job amid a surprise celebration reflecting the love and admiration so many people feel for her.

There were glowing tributes from coworkers, words of praise from ACH President Dr. Jonathan Ellen, potluck fare galore - and even a special appearance from Raymond, the big blue mascot of the Tampa Bay Rays team Louise and husband Jack avidly support as season-ticket holders.

Of course, if Louise could have had it her way, there would only have been a quiet farewell with absolutely no fanfare. She made Susan Collins, administrative director of the Heart Center, promise that there would be no party. But when Susan relayed that sentiment to her nursing staff, the response equated to a resounding "no way."

"I initially had rejected the idea of a party because Louise was so adamant about wanting to leave quietly," Susan said. "But I'm so glad the staff did this. It was my promise to Louise that there would be no party - it wasn't her coworkers' promise."

In fact, when Louise first entered the crowded conference room in the Heart Center, her first words following cheers and applause were initially of disbelief. "This wasn't supposed to happen," she said.

But in no time, the woman known to younger nurses as "Mama Louise" was smiling, sharing hugs and feeling humbled by the outpouring of emotion and sentiments. First came a reading of her Daisy Award nomination letter, singling her out for constantly advocating for nurses, interacting with and educating families, providing compassionate clinical care and always being guided by her love of children.

Chaplain David Pitt followed by announcing the arrival of a VIP. With that, Raymond burst into the room. With cheers and laughter erupting, the Rays' furry emissary embraced the stunned guest of honor and did a few silly dance moves to break the ice. She couldn't help but beam.

Then everyone's attention turned to a Power Point show that noted how there were only 63 beds (compared to 259 today), no ICUs  and no pediatric subspecialists when Louise first started at All Children's.

The presentation revealed how Louise did double duty as weekend and night pharmacist at ACH in addition to performing her supervisory nursing duties; how she brought patients every Thursday to the loading dock for a weekly treat - McDonald's Day; and how she displayed a playful side by placing EKG leads on her shoes and tap-dance down the halls and racing on IV polls. And it expressed thanks from the staff for "all you have taught us through the years."

As the party unfolded, Louise sat down among long-time friends and co-workers, to share a final few hours of on-the-job conversation and company. And others talked about the lasting impact she has had.

"She really has mentored the entire staff to the ways of nursing," Susan said. "She's looked to as a resource. And she just is the epitome of nursing. You can see how much they love her."

Dr. Jeffrey Jacobs was one of several cardiovascular physicians attending the send-off. "One thing I know about Louise is whenever I came out of the operating room and she was the nurse taking care of my patient, I felt really happy," he said. "She's a wonderful nurse and it's been an honor to work with her for 15 years."

Dr. James Quintessenza echoed the sentiment: "Louise has been here longer than almost anybody. She's just a great person and a great nurse. She's been through all kinds of stuff but always has that 'We'll get it done' kind of attitude.' She's going to be missed terribly."

And what will Louise miss? "I think everything," she said. "Everything.  The families, the children. I'll miss the camaraderie. I've known a lot of these nurses a long time - some since they got out of nursing school. They're like my kids."

Louise plans to stay active in retirement. She and husband Jack are highly in involved in their Clearwater church, Calvary Baptist, and they're taking a trip to the Holy Land this summer. And as Rays diehards, they'll be spending plenty of time soon at Tropicana Field.

Yet wherever Louse is, her heart will always be in All Children's.

"People say, 'How do you work at All Children's?' and I say, 'Ninety-nine percent of the time or maybe even more, it's not a sad place," she said. "You're there through the hardships of that family - the worst times in their lives. And if you can give just a little bit for that family, that means more to me than anything."

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Now That’s Special: Veteran Globetrotter Visits All Children's Hospital

Harlem Globetrotter Visits ACH
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They travel the planet bringing smiles, laughs and looks of wonder to countless people of all ages. With a blend of basketball wizardry and old-fashioned slapstick humor, the Harlem Globetrotters have become a pop cultural icon with a history entwining more than 20,000 games over the past 85 years.

And on a recent morning, the Globetrotter magic arrived at All Children's Hospital in a special way - courtesy of the player known as Special K.

Kevin Daley is walking the hallways of 8 South in the distinctive bright red sweat suit of the Globetrotters, with the name of one of the world's most recognizable sports franchises emblazoned in yellow and black on his jacket.

Forget the Harlem Shake craze. Special K has some cool free-form moves of his own - like spinning a pink basketball (to promote breast cancer awareness) on his forefinger and head in spectacular fashion, or rolling the ball along the length of his extended arms and behind his neck.

The native Panamanian has also had more than a handful of dazzling moves during his career. He portrayed a young Michael Jordan in a famous 2002 TV commercial for Gatorade (playing against the real MJ - with his face digitally replaced by that of a young Jordan). He's appeared in prime-time shows like The Celebrity Apprentice and The Bachelorette to setting the Guinness World Record for the longest hook shot ever recorded (46-feet, 6 inches from half court).

But the best move of all is in the way K connects so naturally with kids.

"Hey, hey, hey!" the 6-foot-5, 210-pound Trotter calls out as he enters his first room, the ball already spinning away. A 16-year-old boy from Bradenton sits on his bed, looking up with a grin.

"Where's John? I'm looking for John?" Special K deadpans. He engages the Bradenton teen in friendly conversation amid a handful of his patented basketball tricks. Then he autographs a team photo and poses for a snapshot with John and his family. "I hope you get better quick, buddy," he tells the awestruck patient before moving on to the next room.

There's a common denominator in each of his stops: mostly speechless, wide-eyed reactions with big smiles from the patients, coupled with laughs and applause from parents who know what it means for a Harlem Globetrotter to show up for a surprise visit. As with every celebrity appearance at ACH, Special K's whirlwind tour on this afternoon is therapeutic for youngsters and grown-ups alike.

He meets a little girl about to be released from the hospital and playfully asks, "Can I go home, too?" She's too shy to pose for a picture with him, but that doesn't dim the excitement of her parents who've seen the Globetrotters many times on television. "This is going to be really a fun story to tell," says the girl's dad, Jeff. One day, his daughter will no doubt enjoy telling it, too - or at least seeing the photo that captured the moment.

The most enthusiastic reaction, as it turns out, comes from an unlikely source. A little boy named Aiden is sitting by himself watching television, while his mother has stepped out to go downstairs to the cafeteria - not wanting to eat in front of her son, whose food intake is limited at the moment.

The on-duty nurse, keeping an eye on Aiden, tells him he has a visitor - and in walks Special K. "Hey, what's going on my man?" he asks. Unfazed, Aiden explains without missing a beat: "My mommy is downstairs eating."

"Well, that means you're a big boy, being here by yourself," says the ballplayer. "How old are you, 12 or 13?

"No, I'm 6," he replies calmly.

Special K proceeds to give Aiden his own personal show and can't contain his own smile when the child belts out an impromptu "Whoaa!" during the ball-spinning trick. When K spins the ball on top of his head, Aiden is even more impressed. "Whooooaaa!!"

"Your mama is not going to believe you when you tell her you had a Harlem Globetrotter visit you when she was out," he tells Aiden. Just to be sure, he helps the boy pronounce the team name - and "Special K" - several times before leaving. Then he hands Aiden a signed photo and extends his hand for a gentle fist-bump - linking a little child experience some tough times and a big-hearted athlete hoping to ease the pain.

When she returns, Aiden's mom is thrilled to hear about the visit and how much her son enjoyed it. That's the kind of thing that means the most to Special K, who has visited countless hospitals, schools and youth centers in his nine years as a Globetrotter.  He feels a connection with kids in pain from his own pain he experienced as a child - losing his mother when he was only 3, growing up in Panama.

His dad wound up raising young Kevin and his two old brothers by himself. "My father never remarried, so he did it all on his own," he recalls.

Believing that America would provide more opportunities for his boys, their father moved with them to the United States in 1989. Kevin excelled in soccer, baseball and football, but his passion had always been basketball. He went on to star at Artesia High School near Los Angeles and then at Azusa Pacific University in California.

Still known as Kevin Daley, he made a run at a National Basketball Association career, playing the high-profile NBA Summer League. That door didn't open, but the Globetrotters were wowed by his amazing array of ball-handling skills - along with his equally impressive people skills: a must for the organization that spreads cheer and goodwill on the hardwood.

Kevin Daley became Special K (the initial standing for his first name) and a new star was born for a franchise known for such legends as Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal.

"You've got to be a people person to be part of this team," he said. "You won't make it otherwise, no matter how many baskets you make. I never had a dream of being a Harlem Globetrotter growing up.  And actually, when I joined them, I had several choices. But I felt they were the best fit for me.  I really believe that I ended up exactly where I'm supposed to be."

His decision has given him plenty of exciting and gratifying opportunities along the way. He got to play basketball with President Obama ("I know how much he loves basketball, so I think he was as excited to meet us as we were to meet him."). He gave Justin Bieber some basketball pointers before the pop star played in the 2011 NBA Celebrity All-Star Game (Bieber wound up MVP, thank you very much). And he's made multiple appearances on television shows, including Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

"Turns out I was smarter than a fourth grader," he jokes.

But his greatest thrill was returning in 2010 with the Globetrotters to play a game in his native Panama. Special K received a hero's welcome upon his return to Panama City. A dual-citizen of the U.S. and Panama, he received a raucous ovation playing in front of 10,000 fans from his home country. That was followed by one-on-one visit with Panama's president, Ricardo Martinelli, and a tour of his old school, where a huge celebration unfolded American Idol-style.

"The entire student body was there and they had a band playing - it was unreal," he said. "I cried."

On the court, Special K is known for his ultra-long hook shot - a "four-pointer" from 35 feet or longer according to Globetrotter rules. He says he's made a full-court hook in Argentina, but since it wasn't on video tape, Guinness only recognizes his half-court hook as the world's longest.

Still, the highlights that mean the most and truly touch his heart at the visits like the one he made to All Children's in advance of an exhibition at the University of South Florida's Sun Dome.

"Smiles are a cure for so many things," he says. "And for some reason, when the kids see us, they just light up. And the parents often tell me that it's the first time they've seen their child smile since they've been in the hospital. So that's really special."

And the man called Special K knows special when he sees it.