The Stars Come Out For Taste of Pinellas – and Shine On All Children's Patients, Families, Staff

They arrived quietly, with none of the fanfare that so often accompanies them as international pop culture icons. Away from the screaming crowds this past Friday and Saturday, they came simply to make gentle, one-to-one contact with a far different audience – grateful patients, parents and staff at All Children’s Hospital.

Hours before belting out "everybody's working for the weekend"  at a revamped Taste of Pinellas, the ‘80s rock group Loverboy sang lullabies to a baby in the NICU, led by All Children’s music therapist Kelly Tyrrell.

During one of their many room visits, hard-rocking diva Pat Benatar and guitar-hero husband Neil Giraldo bantered with 16-yer-old Joshua Cox, who proudly revealed he’d achieved the high score on “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” in the video game Guitar Hero. “I have the low score,” quipped Giraldo. Comparing notes with the woman who actually sang the song and the man responsible for the real-life guitar work – priceless.

Dan Aykroyd with baby Veda Venema (He
talked to the parents about playing the father of
 a girl named Veda in the 1991 movie My Girl).
And “who you gonna call” to pose for countless photos with excited doctors and nurses and give a lift to sick kids and their families? That, of course, would be Dan Aykroyd, the famed comedian and musician from Saturday Night Live, the Blues Brothers and Ghostbusters, staying well past his allotted time to chat and interact in a down-to-earth manner with anyone in his path.

Aykroyd and actor Jim Belushi, brother of late SNL star and original Blues Brother John Belushi, teamed up to create their own Saturday night live fun with a high-octane, rollicking set to close the successful Taste weekend. After a year’s hiatus, the longtime ACH fundraiser was repackaged and re-introduced under the sponsorship of St. Petersburg-based business and music entrepreneur Bill Edwards to benefit the hospital and the ACH Foundation.

Thousands of spectators and some two-dozen restaurant vendors packed the new waterfront venue at Albert Whitted Park, enjoying a bill highlighted on Friday by Loverboy and Benatar, and KC and the Sunshine Band and the Blues Brothers Saturday.

But the hospital scenes that unfolded away from the bustling Taste were just as big a hit. Late Friday morning, Loverboy lead singer Mike Reno, along with bandmates Ken Sinnaeve and Doug Johnson, listened intently as Tyrrell explained “multimodal” therapy techniques to calm sick newborns – a combination of soothing, repetitive music and touching. “Music is very powerful, very effective and very emotional,” she said. “And part of what we’re doing with the older babies is helping to promote their development. What we want to do is use music as positive stimulation, without over-stimulating them.”

Moments later, Reno sat down in a NICU rocking chair and cradled an infant boy named Rome. Tyrrell proceeded to lead the group in several calming renditions of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. She had even worked up a lullaby version of the Canadian group’s signature hit, Working for the Weekend, but baby Rome fidgeted and began to cry, not yet ready for the pop charts. So the veteran rockers switched back to Twinkle, Twinkle, The Itsy Bitsy Spider and the Alphabet song, and the tunes worked like a charm.

Loverboy and Music Therapist Kelly Tyrrell in action
For the Lover Boy members, two of whom have grandkids, it was a magical moment that left them marveling at what they’d just seen.

“It makes me feel better about my job,” said Johnson, smiling.

“That was touching, it really got to me,” added Reno. “I love children and you can see from this the universal impact music has on them. I think it’s almost as important as breathing.”

Late in the afternoon, while Lover Boy got set to take the stage, two familiar faces in the rock world walked into the ACH lobby. Benatar, a four-time Grammy winner, and Giraldo, whose lead guitar work powered his wife’s music throughout her long career as well as many other major acts, couldn’t wait to get the tour under way. They were joined by All Children’s Vice President of Medical Affairs and Chief Safety Office Brigitta Mueller, M.D., and ACH Foundation vice president Sylvia Ameen, hearing about the hospital’s mission and savoring conversations with kids and adults as they toured the PICU.
Neil Giraldo and Pat Benatar making new fans

Benatar and Giraldo, married for 33 years with two grown daughters, asked to see more, and Dr. Mueller obliged by bringing them to the NICU. The singer, a fixture of MTV’s early years with hits like mega-hit Love Is A Battlefield, admired a volunteer rocking a baby to sleep in a dimly lit corner. “That’s what I want to do when I retire,” she said, smiling. “I’m a sucker for infants.”

The couple came away from the visit feeling uplifted, two hours before they would do the same for clamoring fans. “It was amazing,” Benatar said. “And this hospital is just beautiful.”

Saturday afternoon was Aykroyd’s turn to lighten the mood. Wearing a casual white shirt and Victoria Police cap from his native Canada, Aykroyd was a magnet on every corridor he walked – and he happily posed for camera-phone snapshots with any and everyone who asked.  

But he was equally interested in hearing from Dr. Jeffrey Jacobs about the cutting-edge heart surgery work done at All Children’s, then seeing the tiny heart patients and their parents in the CVICU, or looking at brain scans in an office with ACH pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Luis Rodriguez, there with his three sons.

“Future Ghostbusters?” Aykroyd asked playfully.

Down another hallway, a little boy named James waited patiently to catch the past Ghostbuster’s attention. “You’re my biggest fan,” the child proclaimed, innocently inverting his words amid the excitement. “I can’t believe I found you!”
Dan Aykroyd and James

“You found me, man,” a beaming Aykroyd replied.

So did many on the hour-plus tour prior to show time.

 “It’s so impressive and this just puts things into total perspective,” he said as the visit wound down. “We see that there are people quietly doing great work, and going unrecognized, every day of their lives.”

But for a little while, a handful of stars shined brightly on them and those they care for, bringing a taste of a special All Children’s weekend to those who needed it most.

Click here to see more photos of the celebrity visits at the hospital.

All Children’s Dialysis Nurses Share Special Bond in Caring for Patients and Families

You could easily walk past it and never know. Just off the second-floor elevator in All Children’s, tucked away from the usual bustle of the hospital, the quiet world of dialysis nurses, families and patients moves at its own deliberate – and often difficult – daily pace.

The team of four nurses and one office coordinator, guided by department supervisor Cheryl Shepherd, R.N., is a tight-knit group delivering care that is the lifeblood – literally and figuratively – to a population of children who receive dialysis three days a week, for hours on end.

Their home inside the hospital is a spacious, state-of-the-art facility equipped with video games, TVs and even beds to make the time pass more easily – and one of the few dialysis units in the state dedicated solely to pediatric care.

For many teens, the unit is a place they have come since early childhood. For youngsters, even babies, it is where they will spend countless time for years to come for hemodialysis on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays – cleaning their blood and doing the work that non-functioning or compromised kidneys no longer can. Many other patients receive dialysis at home (through “peritoneal dialysis”) but they also make regular clinic visits at the hospital.

For the dialysis nurses, meanwhile, it is a 24-7 commitment and a highly personalized form of patient care. They virtually become extensions of a family, developing close relationships with the children they see through the years – helping parents and kids deal with the enormous challenges faced by a life of dialysis or the meticulous care required after a kidney transplant.

“It’s rewarding but sad at times, too,” Shepherd says. “They really get to know the families and kids well. When the families have a question, they call the unit. We do have a nurse on call round-the-clock.  They take all the patient calls – and the nurse will call the physician if there’s a problem. We have a significant number of patients on home dialysis. And if any of them are admitted, the nurses come in to assist. Or they trouble-shoot over the phone when there’s a problem with a dialysis machine at home.”

What makes the challenge even harder, both for patients and families and the nurses who care for them, is the often long-term nature of the condition.

“Most of the patients we have are chronic,” Shepherd explains. “They have kidney disease – they’re either born with it or developed it later. Some don’t have kidneys because they were removed; others have kidneys that stopped functioning. Chronic means they are never going to come off dialysis. With acute patients, there is a loss of kidney function that occurs suddenly, usually within a 48-hour period. Acute kidney injury can be reversible with treatment, but a proportion of patients will never regain full renal function, and enter end-stage renal failure requiring lifelong dialysis or a kidney transplant. Our nurses know every situation inside out – and have more than 100 years of experience between the four of them.”

Two of those nurses, Jane Petruccelli and Carolyn Defayette, have been in the dialysis unit the longest time, 20 and 15 years respectively.  Peggy Bach has been there for five years, and Kim Suarez has been for four. All of them have experience either in the PICU or CVICU.

“I think the hardest part of the job is getting patients to understand how important adherence is and how damaging some of the non-adherence is to them,” says Petruccelli.  “Because you don’t feel bone disease. You don’t feel hypertension. But those things can happen if you don’t stick with the plan. Kids don’t know mortality or consequences. That’s one of the hard parts of our job.”

The nurses talk about a hemodialysis patient who eventually received a long-awaited transplant. But because the teen didn’t stick with the critical regimen of medications and shots for transplant patients, new health issues took hold and landed the youngster back on dialysis.

“We get their labs every month, so it’s a good indication of how they’re doing and how their adherence is,” adds Bach. “And we do this little incentive game, where whoever gets the most improvement gets a prize. I don’t think the kids love it here but they have a pretty good attitude all things considered.”

Adds Defayette: “It becomes tough during their teenage years. Like every other teenager on the planet, they feel like nothing is ever going to happen to them. So a lot of them are under the belief that after a transplant their kidney starts to ‘like’ them – that they don’t need the drugs. It’s very challenging.”

The challenge also applies to children currently undergoing dialysis: making them understand how they need to take their medications to protect their bones and why they need to adhere to a special diet.

“The medications don’t always taste good,” Suarez says. “The kids coming in for dialysis often think that we’re ‘fixing’ them and then they’re on their way. But the diet is crucial and very difficult to follow for anyone – especially for ones on dialysis. No pizza, no French fries, no potatoes, no cheese. Salt increases the fluid in your body, which they already hold onto. Their kidneys don’t work so it limits their salt intake. In addition, phosphorous – in dairy products such as milk and cheese – will actually deteriorate their bones over time.”

Yet with all the hardships faced by patients and families, there is a deep sense of appreciation for the work the dialysis team does and a powerful bonding that takes place. As always, patients are greeted by the dialysis office coordinator, Debbie Thackrey, upon arrival for dialysis treatments or clinic visits. She is a popular fixture who maintains much of the “behind the scenes” activity that is required for the nurses to provide care. 

Patients tend to develop “favorite” nurses and rely on them for encouragement and friendship – with an additional layer of support from the Child Life staff member dedicated to the dialysis unit, Holly Ott.

One dialysis patient and his family members have been driving four hours roundtrip three times a week to All Children’s from Orlando. The long trip is worth it, says mother Christina Hudson, because of the wonderful care and top-notch facility at All Children’s. Her 18-year-old son, Donovan, is also a heart transplant patient followed by Dr. Alfred Asante-Korang and the ACH Heart Transplant Program.

“The main reason is for Donovan to be happy and comfortable, and that’s what he is here,” Hudson says. “We were going to switch back to a facility in Orlando, but this is where he’s happy. No matter what we need, there’s always somebody to help. And Child Life helps so much, even with Donovan’s little sister.”

In Donovan’s case, medications needed for his transplant caused his kidneys to fail – a scenario that’s not uncommon. In three years, he will “graduate” out of All Children’s, but for now, this is where he wants to be for his care.

“Throughout the state, there are lots of free-standing dialysis centers but very few that perform pediatric dialysis,” Shepherd says. “Many of these facilities are only for adults and won’t treat children under 15 in most cases. So I think the fact that All Children’s is a pediatric facility, and we provide not just an acute service but an ongoing chronic service, makes a big difference. And the experience and care we offer is first rate.”

“The nurses who work here are an incredibly special breed,” adds Sharon Perlman, M.D., of the USF Morsani College of Medicine nephrology program at All Children's. “Because many of them have come from intensive care backgrounds, they’re used to a high-intensity, high-acuity environment with a lot of rushing around.”

 “The environment here is a combination of ICU and long-term care,” Dr. Perlman continues. “In a larger sense, they are almost like surrogate mothers to the kids. These are patients we see sometimes just for months, and sometimes for many years. In addition, the technology here is impressive and they are extremely adept at managing it.”

For instance, the nurses are in charge of maintaining the unit’s large water system so that purified water – vital in the dialysis process – is always available. It’s critical that the machines are always in top shape. They filter the blood, clean it and send it flowing back into the young patients. “It’s constant motion,” Shepherd says.

And that sums up daily life, nestled out of sight, for the nurses of the dialysis unit.