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Posted December 6, 2012
Behind the Scenes at Radiothon 2012 - Day 1

Radiothon 2012
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At 5 a.m. Thursday, the streets outside All Children's Hospital are still sleepy and silent. But inside, the big room on the second floor is already bustling with activity -and bracing for show time.

The fifth annual Radiothon fundraiser is an hour from hitting the country music airwaves of 103.5-FM, and a dozen hospital staffers and volunteers are hard at work on last-minute details in the Children's Auditorium.

In the middle of the action - as always - is event producer Ann Miller, long-time media relations manager for All Children's with multiple Emmy Awards to her credit for coordinating the Telethon broadcasts.

"The thing about the Radiothon is it truly is a day in the life of All Children's Hospital," she says.

With that thought in mind, here's a look at how Day One unfolded, with an equally packed schedule for Day Two on tap all day Friday (including a scheduled appearance by former Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back great Mike Alstott).

Without further ado - live from All Children's ... it's Radiothon 2012.

5:30 a.m. - Volunteers move about the auditorium, getting everything ready for the flood of calls that will soon pour in. Phone sets rest silently upon rows of tables on one side of the auditorium, directly across from the US 103.5-FM desk, where morning on-air personalities Catfish and Launa will soon go to work to kick off another Radiothon.
The back of the room is stocked with coffee, bagels and fruit to keep the volunteers fueled for the long day ahead. And cafeteria manager Joe Santoro gets an enthusiastic greeting as he walks in with a plate of special glazed donuts, bearing the logo of 103.5 - the first round of goodies he'll deliver throughout the day. "All in a day's work," he says with a smile. "And lots more to come." While a tech sets the levels on the mics for the radio hosts, Catfish stands nearby, chatting with All Children's staff and getting set for the action. He takes a moment to reflect on significance of the event.

"The whole staff is pumped up about it," he says. "Everybody's busy and everybody's got their complaints and their problems but this is a time we can all get together and think of others. And this facility is fabulous. And these families and kids who come in here are just amazing. We've met so many of them. They've walked away overwhelmed with the support and love they get. A lot of lives are saved here. I think this hospital is one of the best on the planet."

6:15 a.m.: Despite the early hour, a wave of excitement and energy fills the room as the show gets rolling. Catfish kicks things off by telling listeners to set aside some Christmas cash and consider become an All Children's Miracle Maker. Launa jumps in to elaborate: "Just $10 a month - 30 cents a month - is all we're asking."

6:17 a.m.: A phone rings on the other side of the room - the first official one of Radiothon 2012 - and applause and loud cheers erupt to mark the moment. In the middle of the room, the big erasable "incentive board" offers the initial lure to listeners: a $25 Bernini of Ybor gift certificate.

6:28 a.m.: First guest of the day, ACH director of strategic services Steve Dunn, chats with Catfish about long range planning and the effort to build the new facility. Steve is one of an array of All Children's vice presidents who have arrived before dawn to handle calls. Maggie Reilly, director of occupational physical therapy, visits with the deejays next. She talks about her program, including some new additions. "We have a lot of new things," she tells them. "A new building. A Child Development and Rehabilitation Center and we're very fortunate to have a new therapeutic playground outside. So we have a whole area for toddlers and older kids to run and climb and play, with a sports area and a sensory garden."

Seconds later, the first Miracle Maker donations are announced on air - including $250 from parents Rob and Rita Vasquez. The life of their son, Robbie, was saved at All Children's six years ago after collapsing while practicing for a cross-country race. Doctors raced to relieve pressure on his brain from a tumor, then watched him make a miraculous recovery. Small wonder his parents have remained dedicated supporters of the ACH mission ever since.

7:09 a.m.: Dr. Patrick Mularoni, a pediatric emergency and sports medicine physician at All Children's, talks with Catfish and Launa about the serious problem of concussions in youth sports. "When an athlete suffers a concussion, only about 10 percent of those kids will have loss of consciousness, so a concussion can be very vague," he says. Dr. Mulroni has big plans to help All Children's expand the study of this epidemic issue in youth sports. Catfish playfully puts the sports doc on the spot, asking him to address the crucial need for ongoing financial support. "A lot families are in need in this area," Dr. Mulroni says. "And the work we provide costs a lot of money. We rely on the community to help fund the hospital and to help make this wonderful place what it is."

7:45 a.m.: Ann Miller pauses in her producer role and takes to the mic to relay a poignant story - one that has just come in over the phones to a staff volunteer. A mom wanted to talk about her infant son, Levi, who had suddenly becoming mysteriously ill - including projectile vomiting of blood.  Even though they were 60 miles away, the mother knew All Children's was where she needed to take Levi. He was rushed to the hospital, where doctors quickly stabilized him. And by that evening, he was even well enough to return home. Sadly, Levi passed away a month later - a victim of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. With her world turned upside down, the mother forgot to pay her hospital bill. When she called up the billing office to explain what happened, the representative on the other end of the line stopped her in mid-sentence: forget the bill. It would be completely forgiven. That was the story the mom wanted listeners to know - how the compassion of a hospital in a time of tragedy and heartbreak can make such a difference.

7:59 a.m.: Toby Keith's "How Do You Like Me Now?" is playing on 103.5, piped in over the auditorium speakers. Judging from the impressive flow of donations so far, listeners like All Children's lots. Stephanie Hall, Director of Children's Miracle Network Hospitals for ACH, just took a $1,000 pledge from Fort Lauderdale. "It's been a great morning," she says.

8:10 a.m.: Eighteen-month-old Jack, the first ACH kid of the day arrives, in the arms of mother Danielle. Their story came to light in last year's Radiothon. Jack was born three weeks early and diagnosed in the Neonatal Care Unit with Down Syndrome. His stay in the NICU was a challenging one, including two surgeries, an infection and feeding issues - forcing him to stay 78 days in the hospital. When he finally was able to go home, his parents decorated his crib with a sign that read: "Hit the road, Jack!" Today, he's making great strides, with the help of ACH speech and feeding therapy. He's a happy, healthy baby now involved in the hospital's Early Steps Program.

Danielle told his story again on air, stressing how All Children's had made an immeasurable impact on their lives. "We were just were another one of those parents who never thought we would need All Children's," she says. But it was there in a big way when they did. When it's time to sign off, Catfish asks Jack to say goodbye. On cue, he blurts out, "bye bye" - and the room fills with applause for his efforts. "Your first big starring role," replies Catfish. "Way to go, Jack!"

8:50 a.m.: Laura McKeeman, reigning Miss Florida and SunSports broadcaster known for her coverage of the Tampa Bay Rays, has been a frequent visitor on the floors of All Children's. And she's next on the show. Her future includes a trip to Las Vegas in January to compete in the Miss America pageant - and soon after begin covering the Rays when they begin their 2013 season. But now, Laura wants to talk about the kids who have touched her heart during visits to All Children's. She talks about meeting one teen girl whom, in spite of dealing with a life-threatening condition, was intent keeping up with her AP high school courses. "She told me I'm doing my homework because I have great dreams to go to college and help other young children who are going through what I'm going through right now," Laura recounts. "She was not listening to the statistics that said maybe she wasn't going to make it. She was going to power through it." Laura gave the young woman a ring to keep as a sign of friendship and hope - and still stays in touch with her on Facebook. "She's doing very well," Laura adds.

9:15 a.m.: Another teenage girl is now in the spotlight: 13-year-old Kaitlyn, a cystic fibrosis patient, sits down with the radio hosts wearing a mask to protect her from germs. Her mom, Kelly, joins her and explains how Kaitlyn wasn't diagnosed until two years ago - much later than most CF patients. She had always exhibited symptoms but nobody put the pieces together until her little sister, Gabby, was born and Kelly was identified as a CF carrier. Kaitlyn then proceeds to steal the whole show. She's charming and animated during the interview, despite describing herself as "socially awkward."

When the topic turns to music, Kaitlyn states that she loves to sing. When Catfish and Launa offer her a chance, Kaitlyn wows the crowd with a stunning, soulful version of "Beautiful" by Christina Aguilera. "Everyday is so wonderful / Then suddenly it's hard to breathe / Now and then I get insecure / From all the pain / I'm so ashamed / I am beautiful / No matter what they say / Words can't bring me down / I am beautiful/ In every single way ... " The performance triggers a boisterous, heartfelt ovation. "Well, you get to go," says Catfish. "I'm going to sign off on that right now. That is awesome." Moments later, Laura McKeeman walks over to tell Kaitlyn how much she loved her singing and to keep in touch regarding possible performance opportunities. Even covered by a mask, Kaitlyn's big smile is impossible to hide.

10:01 a.m. - It's time for a shift change. 103.5 personality Norm takes over at the host table - just as a team of Walgreen's volunteers who'd been working the phones gives way to volunteers from Publix. And a new guest arrives to tell her story - a 17-year-old girl named Alex. Also a CF patient, Alex had gone home from the hospital Wednesday and hadn't expected to be back so quickly. But a problem with her IV tube forced an unplanned visit to the emergency room in the morning. When she was ready to leave, she decided to take a detour to the Radiothon for a quick visit. Alex talks about her ongoing projects she's involved with on the ACH Family Advisory Council - "anything from allergy projects, even just working on how doctors and nurses interact with patients." She's been coming to All Children's since she was diagnosed at 9. While she's on the air, her mom sends a text. "She wants me to say how great All Children's Hospital is and how much we love it here."

10:30 a.m.: As interviews with patients continue throughout the morning - right now with a thriving, 14-year-old kidney transplant patient named Esme - another room down a long hallway is hopping. Members of the Volunteer Services and Foundation staff are busy tabulating all the pledges that have been collected over the phone. Every 15 minutes, Radiothon helpers deliver another plastic container holding the latest pledge sheets. At the moment, staffers Brittany Nelms and Jasmine Giacalone, along with longtime volunteer Ann Van Peer, are entering all the data and verifying credit card numbers. Then Ryan Perry, director of Annual Giving tabulates all the numbers to keep a running total of the gifts. "Everything's going great so far," Ryan says. And the day is still young.

11:05 a.m.: Two unscheduled guests have just sat down with Norm. They are young mothers and newfound friends - Brook Anderson of Pasco County and Kristin Clark from Pensacola. A month ago, they didn't know each other, but now they are linked by the harrowing ordeals entwining their infant daughters. Brook's baby, 7-month-old Jaelyn, was born healthy but suddenly became terribly sick. Doctors discovered she had an enlarged heart and now needs a transplant to survive. "She was perfectly healthy, no problems," says Brook, her voice quavering with emotion. "Five months later, I'm here." Kelly dissolved into tears as Kristin told her story. Her 8-1/2-month-old child Breanna, needs heart surgery. In fact, she already had one operation but Kristin could see something wasn't right. She returned to the hospital and ended up coding before doctors saved her. She's now had myriad procedures and more are scheduled in two weeks, but she still is unable to swallow to due a problem with her trachea. "We've been here since she was born, and overall she's a happy kid," Kristin says. "She's been through so much and she's truly my hero."

When it's Norm's turn to talk, he can't. He is overcome with the heartache of what he has just heard and asks for a moment to compose himself. Even after a pause, he chokes up and his eyes fill with tears. "These kids don't know any different. ..." he manages to say. "And it's horrible." His voice trails off again before the interview continues. When it ends, he stands up from his chair, walks to the other side of the table and gives each woman a tight embrace.

11:30 a.m.: The heavy mood lightens as Steve and Susan Hurley of Stingray Plant City and Sting Ray Bartow make an in-person appearance to present a check on-air. It's for $5,000 and the gesture sparks a big response in the room. Norm takes the opportunity to prod any other business owners in the community who may be listening to follow the Hurley's lead. All the while, people making pledges are entered in a drawing to win all manner of prizes. A trip to the Academy of Country Music Award telecast in Las Vegas this spring has already been won by some lucky pledge-maker; still on tap are such goodies as an autographed Carrie Underwood guitar and four tickets to Busch Gardens' Christmas Town.

12:25 p.m.: Volunteers from Wal-Mart and Sam's Club have taken over for the Publix workers and one particular Wal-Mart helper, Terri Heaney, takes a turn at the radio table. She has a son who with Autism and ADHD who has benefitted enormously from therapy at All Children's. To show her gratitude, Terri has written a poem that she reads to Norm on the air. "One dollar, one dime / one donation at a time / Providing hope to parents and kids / Helping them all grow and live / Miracles are brought a little at a time / Won't you give a dollar or a dime?

1:37 p.m.: Next up, 9-year-old Ryan from St. Petersburg, a veteran of two previous Radiothon broadcasts. Ryan was diagnosed with tuberous sclerosis, a rare genetic disorder that causes non-cancerous tumors to grow in the brain and on other vital organs. He's undergone many surgeries and infusions of immune system boosters. But in spite of all the hardship he has endured, Ryan projects a cheery demeanor and flashes an ever-present smile. He's an avid fan of the Tampa Bay Rays. And when Norm asks him his favorite, he has a quick answer: "The pitching!" Smart kid. He then reveals the Matt Moore shirt he's wearing to underscore his answer. Norm has some inside info on a special Ryan mastered over the summer. "Bicycling!" he announces - and the room goes wild with his triumphant response.

2-7 p.m.:  The guests and their powerful stories and comments continue through the afternoon. There's Cloud, an 11-year-old Lakeland boy, who battles the daily pain of juvenile arthritis. In spite of his difficulties, Cloud is on an Honor Roll student, a member of the Chess Club and Academic Team, a student newscaster and an active Boy Scout. There's 15-year-old Celina, a perfectly healthy high school student from Dunedin who was diagnosed with leukemia on Oct. 15 - after her dentist became concerned about her sudden and unusually bad case of gingivitis. To keep up with schoolwork, she has enrolled in four classes - taking two by phone conference, and the other two with hospital or homebound teachers who teach her weekly. 

Like every guest, Cloud and Celina receive a customized thumb drive that contained a complete audio clip of their appearance on the air. The unique souvenir is the brainchild of multiple Emmy-winning Creative Services Director Mike Sexton. Sitting in the back of the room all day, he monitors the live sound feed through his laptop, which, in turn, is hooked to a video camera recording the whole scene. Literally seconds after each guest finishes at the mic, their special thumb drive is handed to them - now that's a parting gift.

Jenine Rabin, new Executive Vice President in charge of the All Children's Hospital Foundation, stops by to see her first Radiothon in action. "This is just such a wonderful opportunity for anyone to get involved," she says. "It's just perfect, because people can be giving gifts to become a Miracle Maker at $10 a month - they can give more, they can give less. It's great ¬- and I want to thank everyone who has contributed."

And everyone who'll keep the Radiothon giving going Friday.

Read about Day 2 of the 2012 Radiothon