Wednesday, April 17, 2013

All Children’s Employee Shows Valor In Boston Marathon Tragedy

Connie Mendoza at the Boston Marathon
Connie Mendoza (right) and friend Mary at the Boston Marathon
Connie Mendoza stood near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday afternoon, feeling a mixture of elation and exhaustion like so many others who had completed the historic race.

The office assistant in All Children's neurology department and avid distance runner had donned her sweats, waiting for a friend further back in the pack to finish. That's when it happened - a bone-jarring explosion, followed by billowing smoke and the sight of blood spattered everywhere.

Momentarily disoriented, Connie knew in her heart that a bomb had just been detonated. She saw people falling to the pavement amid a surreal blur of screams and shouts and quickly checked to see if she had been hit. Realizing she was fine, she looked up and saw a man lying in the middle of the street, his legs mangled from the blast. Then the second explosion rocked the air and complete chaos engulfed the crowd of thousands.

She remembered what her father, a member of the Mexican military, had taught her as a child. If a person needs help in an emergency, you always lend a hand. Without thinking, she raced into the turmoil and peril of an unfolding national story, one that continues to hold the country in its grip, to do what she could.

"His skin was off his legs and I tried to put it back, but I couldn't, and then someone came behind me - an EMT, and he wrapped the man's legs and took him away," she recalls.

Her hands and sweats were covered with blood. And she stood there, in a semi-state of shock, when her thoughts turned back to her friend, Mary, a St. Petersburg woman who had traveled to Boston to compete with Connie.

She knew Mary's marathon time would put her a good half hour from completing the event, so she began running to where she thought her friend might be on the course - all the while hoping Mary's husband and daughter at the finish line hadn't been injured by the blasts. But police on the scene wouldn't let her or anyone else pass.

"They had stopped the race a mile from the end, so I knew that Mary and the other people back there were okay," Connie says. "They were trying to get everybody out of there. You just assisted people to move the other direction so all the ambulances could get through."

Cell phone service was out so Connie couldn't call or text anyone, and word spread that the public transportation was shut down - meaning she had no way to get back to her hotel, change and catch her 6:30 p.m. flight from Logan International back to Tampa, and her job at All Children's Tuesday morning.

"The best thing to do at that time is get out of the way and let the emergency people do their job," she says. "And the whole time, you're thinking, 'Is this really happening?' "

Connie suddenly remembered  a friend from Boston who was working as a race volunteer. She knew he had parked his car around the finish area and had offered to drive her and Mary to the hotel. She began jogging to where  she knew he would have been working, near the buses.  And amazingly, she spotted him in the crowd.

"He's elderly and I held his hand, and I said, 'Where did you park?' and he was confused," Connie says. "So I go, 'Let's take a deep breath. Think, where did you park - does that building look familiar or that one over there?' I'm pointing and pointing, and finally he remembered and found his car."

That's when cell phone service came back on and Connie received a text from another friend in the race - she relayed news that Mary was fine, and so were Mary's husband and daughter.

Buoyed by the news but feeling emotionally drained, Connie settled into the passenger seat as the man drove her the airport hotel. She grabbed her belongings and splashed water on her face and arms. It was already past 5:15 p.m. and there was no time for a shower if she was going to catch her flight.

Outbound planes were delayed by the crisis, allowing Connie to make it to the gate in time. Her concerned co-workers from All Children's had flooded her cell phone with texts, and she assured them and members of her family that she was fine.

She arrived home after 1 a.m. Tuesday, her thoughts still swirling in disbelief at the tragedy she'd witnessed. She looked at the medallion she had been handed as she'd crossed the finish line in a time of 3:34 - some 34 minutes ahead of the attacks - and it carried none of the sense of joy or achievement it was meant to signify. Instead, she was overcome by a wave of guilt and sadness - a feeling that she had survived unharmed while so many others had lost loved ones in the senseless act.

She cried hard and was unable to sleep. Walking into work at 8:30 Tuesday morning and greeting her friends, sitting down in her cubicle with a full load of work, proved to be a welcome diversion from the anguish. But as the steady flow of news reports provided more details of casualties, including an 8-year-old boy who had been killed, she was unable to feel anything but heartache over her participation in the marathon.

Wednesday morning, her emotions were still raw. She had spoken by phone with her father, and a sister who had done four tours of duty for the U.S. in the Afghanistan, and they tried to give her perspective.

"My sister has been through war and she said she understands what I'm feeling," Connie says. "There's a tradition that you're supposed to wear the medallion the day after the race, and I tried. But I just couldn't. I know it's supposed to be a big deal, but it doesn't feel that way to me. I just don't feel like I deserve to have it. I feel guilty. I wish there was something you could have done, but there wasn't."

Connie wants to get back to running right away. In fact, running helped put her life back on track after some personal losses left her in turmoil in 2007. She had never been a runner, but her then high-school-aged daughter entered her in a 5K race as a way of giving her a new focus in life.

The race made Connie physically ill, but she persevered. And she quickly developed a passion for running. She joined a running club in St. Petersburg, and gradually became a running coach.  In October 2011, though she had never run more than eight miles at one time, she competed in and finished the Marine Corps Marathon. In the process, she automatically qualified for a race she'd never heard of: the Boston Marathon - an invitation good for two years.

In March 2012, Connie followed with a personal best in the Los Angeles Marathon at 3:06. After running in another Marine Corps Marathon last October, she decided to compete in the 117th running of the Boston Marathon - with some coaxing from Mary. She tuned up last month by competing in her second LA Marathon and headed to Boston this past weekend.

Saturday and Sunday were like a dream for her, mingling with fellow runners from all over the world at the marathon Expo. But then came Monday's nightmare and the flood of conflicting feelings that remain painfully fresh: the searing memories of the bomb scene, the blood and screams, the injured man she had rushed in to try to help - remembering the lesson her father had taught her as a child.

"I cannot imagine anyone, if you're okay and you see another human life in danger, it doesn't matter who or what," she says. "You just have to do something. There's no choice involved. You do it."

Connie did, without giving it any thought or concern for own safety - one of many acts of heroism on a dark day in Boston and for the nation. And the next morning she was back at her All Children's desk, ready for the day's work helping with Spanish translation and making appointments. There were smiles for her friends, but tears as well.

"You think about the mother who lost her daughter who was running, or the little boy who died," she says. "And you realize that all the little complaints or troubles you have in life are so small."

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.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Hospital That Babe Ruth Helped Build

Julia Ruth Stevens & Babe Ruth
Julia Ruth Stevens (center) with Babe Ruth (photo courtesy of www.baberuthcentral.com)
They called it the House that Ruth Built. The fabled nickname for old Yankee Stadium honored the baseball immortal who remains larger than life in American culture: the Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth.

But there is another house the Babe helped to build. He did it not with his bat but with his heart, not with his towering home runs but with a soaring spirit of generosity toward children - especially those in need.

You can find the modern incarnation of that house right here in St. Petersburg, where Ruth spent many a spring training with the franchise he forged into a dynasty, the New York Yankees.

And you might be surprised at its identity: All Children's Hospital.

The story of how Ruth lent a hand in cementing the foundation of All Children's - then called the American Legion Crippled Children's Hospital - is worth knowing now for many reasons.

With another spring training in Florida giving way to a new baseball campaign, what better time to recall a little-known chapter of local baseball history that helped a small St. Petersburg hospital create a bold history of its own?

With hopeful fans turning their attention to the 2013 season for the Tampa Bay Rays, and a newly signed sponsorship relationship now linking the Rays and All Children's, what better time to reflect on the man who first linked big-league baseball with the lives of young patients here?

And who better to tell us about the giving side of the Babe than the one living person who knew him better than any other - his 96-year-old daughter, Julia Ruth Stevens?

Reached by phone at her part-time home in Phoenix, Julia spoke with a voice filled with vitality and enthusiasm as she talked about the baseball's original home run king - a person she still calls "Daddy."

"He was a wonderful, wonderful man," she says. "I loved him - and to this day, I think about him all the time and I miss him. I think of how wonderful he was with children and how much he loved them. I believe that was because of his upbringing and not having a family to be there for him." 

Unable to handle their rambunctious son, Ruth's parents placed him in St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys in Baltimore at only 7. He remained a ward of the strict reform school for much of his youth. Yet it was there that he developed a gift for baseball, starting on his pathway to mythic baseball stature -always reaching out to kids along the way as if to ease painful memories of his own childhood.

"One thing about Daddy: He never refused an autograph," Julia adds. "After the game was over, there was always a bunch of kids waiting for him to sign their autograph books. He'd stop and do it, and he would have stood there forever - until mother would chime in and say, 'Well, Dear, don't forget we have guests coming for dinner so we'd better get home.' "

But the Babe did more than use his hand to sign his name for starry-eyed kids and just as many adults. He handed over a hefty amount of cash to help the fledgling American Legion hospital . A page of the St. Petersburg Times from March 29, 1928 laid out the details - only six months after Ruth hit his record-breaking 60th home run as the cornerstone of the "Murderer's Row" lineup and arguably the best baseball team ever assembled, the 1927 World Champion Yankees.

"Babe Ruth to Help Kiddies: Sultan of Swat to Aid In Making Crippled Children's Hospital A Success," proclaimed the headline.

The article described how Ruth, despite being a national hero, never lost touch with a childhood that had its share of poverty and pain. "To show his sympathy for other children who are starting life out under a handicap," the story said, "he made the first donation in the campaign now being staged here to raise funds for the continuance of the work at the Crippled Children's hospital."

Ruth's cash donation to the American Legion post involved with the hospital was called "liberal" in the account, which also included this quote from the Bambino himself:

"It's fine during the baseball season to see the youngsters on the bleachers and in the grandstand on a Saturday afternoon and their applause is one of the greatest inspirations the ball players have. But the one thing that gets under the skin is the kiddies in the hospitals like those in your local institutions who can't enjoy sports themselves and seldom get out to see a ball game.

"I really feel it more of a privilege than a duty to do what little I can to help keep up the good work that is being done here by the Legion and the citizens of St. Petersburg for the (crippled) and underprivileged children of Florida."

Ruth also announced his intention to visit children in the hospital in hopes of lifting their spirits, something he made part of his regular routine around the country - well before it became a common practice by other ballplayers of his generation. But his most public gesture on behalf of the future All Children's Hospital was to participate in a 1932 charity golf showdown staged at the Pasadena country club in nearby Gulfport.

The match paired the two famous Babes of the era in a best-ball competition: Babe Ruth vs. female golf and overall sporting great Babe Didrikson. Onlookers in the gallery were reportedly abuzz at the sight of Ruth and Didrikson trying to outdrive one another, with the female Babe ultimately establishing her dominance on the fairway.

Julia has heard about the event but doesn't recall any of the details. Still, she has vivid memories from her many visits from New York to St. Petersburg as a child. "I'd come down whenever the Yankees trained," she says. "I remember the green benches on Central Avenue and the Don CeSar on the beach."

She was a little girl when Ruth married her mother, Claire, then legally adopted Julia. "My own father died when I was very young," she says, "so as far as I was concerned, Daddy was just Daddy - the only father I ever knew." She recollects how her father always rented a home or apartment in St. Petersburg for himself and the family, which included half-sister Dorothy. One spot was the old Jungle Hotel, adjacent to the Jungle golf course that was a favorite spot of the Babe. Another was the Rolyat Hotel in Gulfport (now located on the grounds of Stetson University College of Law).

"Daddy always brought his own cook down," Julia says. "She was a Finnish woman and a very good cook." While her father worked out with the team at then-named Miller Huggins Field by Crescent Lake, the sisters often attended Mrs. Akins Open Air School to keep up with their classes. "I loved it," she remembers. "We used to study outdoors and do our lessons, so we wouldn't fall behind with our education."

Julia's father staged some of his famous holdouts while staying in St. Petersburg over the winter. He signed his biggest contract ever in St. Petersburg, a two-year deal worth $80,000 annually, after negotiating for two weeks with then-Yankees owner Col. Jacob Ruppert at the Princess Martha Hotel.

According to an account in the St. Petersburg Evening Independent, Ruth was anxious to get to the Jungle golf course and seemed lukewarm about the offer when he relayed it to his wife.  She had a far different reaction. "Eighty-thousand a year!" Julia's mom was said to have yelled. "Get yourself back in the car and go right back downtown before the Colonel changes his mind!" He reportedly got back in his car, headed back down Fifth Avenue North to downtown and signed the deal.

Such golden-era stories about the Babe in St. Petersburg abound. After finally retiring, he and his family stayed at a winter home on Treasure Island, allowing him to continue his passion for golf with an easy drive to his favorite courses.

"If it hadn't been for golf, I don't know what Daddy would have done after he could not get a manager job when he was released from the Yankees," Julia says. "He wanted so much to manage a team. But Judge (Kenesaw Mountain) Landis said, 'You can't let that guy manage a team. He can't even manage himself.' Well, of course that was not true. By the time that Daddy was released from the Yankees, believe me, there was no wildness in him left. My mother tamed him down."

Julia remains unwaveringly proud of her father and his mighty accomplishments, such as his 714 home run total that stood as the standard for many decades, and his achievements as a pitcher before being switched to outfield.

"He would have made the Hall of Fame just as well as a pitcher," she says. "I hope nobody ever forgets what he accomplished and that his name will go down in history for those things - not, as one magazine wrote about him, that he was a woman-chaser and a drunkard and this and that. Believe me, he couldn't have done what he did on the baseball field if he had been what they called him."

In fact, the Ruth family contends that the widely held view of the Babe as wild and reckless was exaggerated by the media at the time and later became entrenched in lore by Hollywood portrayals. That has led great-grandson Brent Stevens, 35, to create a Web site: www.baberuthcentral.com dedicated to celebrating the Babe's on-the-field feats and many charitable endeavors away from the game. The site, which went live in 2006, is a treasure trove of all things Babe Ruth: photos, interviews, history, and recollections from Ruth descendants and baseball experts.

"The more I heard about my great-grandfather, the more I realized how special he was not just as a baseball player but as a person," Stevens says. "And I remember seeing the movie 'The Babe' as a kid, and there were a lot of parts of that movie that were really upsetting to me. I just didn't feel like it was an honest portrayal. I later got into the Web industry and I had this vision of an on-line museum for the Babe. And it was really solidified when my sister came home from school one day all upset."

He and his parents asked what was wrong, and she explained that she was upset by what she'd read in a history book about Ruth. "It said he broke records as a player but was also an alcoholic and womanizer," Stevens says. "And I just never felt like that was a fair representation, and it really motivated me to move forward in doing this site - to tell more of a holistic view of the Babe, not only as a player but as a person."

That human side has been championed in St. Petersburg by the Committee to Commemorate Babe Ruth, run by Ruth experts Tim Reid and Bob Ward, who have several projects in the works to honor the legend locally. And it has been well chronicled by respected baseball historian Bill Jenkinson, author of "The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs."

"When you research Babe Ruth, which is something I've done for 34 years on almost a daily basis, this is something you see over and over again," he says. "There's no hyperbole. The man's flaws and limitations I think are well-known, but I don't think I've ever become aware of a more caring, decent, kind person than Babe Ruth."

His nature was never more apparent than with children, including those in a little St. Petersburg hospital that would continue to grow and flourish - with a helping hand from one of the game's all-time greats - into a burgeoning modern institution. Count it as one more home run on the Babe's list.

Today, All Children's affiliation with Johns Hopkins Medicine brings the Babe Ruth story full circle, entwining the city of his humble beginnings, Baltimore.

Told of what has become of the American Legion hospital her father aided, Julia paused at the thought and then spoke: "Oh, that's wonderful. I'm so glad to hear it. Daddy would be very happy about that."

After all, it's the other house Ruth helped build. And somewhere inside All Children's, the heart of the Great Bambino still beats strong.