Celebrity visits and private concerts thrill young patients

December 15, 2018
Keith Urban pays a surprise visit to superfan Marissa English at Mercy Health – St. Vincent Medical Center in Toledo, Ohio, in October. Her quilt has photo blocks of the country singer performing.

It was the tweet storm that gave a gravely ill young woman at Mercy Health — St. Vincent Medical Center in Toledo, Ohio, the experience of a lifetime:

"We have a very sick special someone who's not able to make it to her dream concert — Keith Urban — tomorrow night because she is in our Pediatric ICU," a palliative care coordinator wrote in the original Twitter post. "This young girl is Keith Urban's '#1 fan' and has to forfeit her tickets she had to see him. We are trying very hard to get the message to him of what it would mean for him to stop and see this patient while he is in town. Please help us get the message out to hopefully reach #KeithUrban!!"

Nurses and other St. Vincent staff launched into a full-court social media press to capture Urban's attention and play on his heartstrings. They hit the right note: the country megastar overrode his manager's contention that there was no time to squeeze in a visit. There were numerous hush-hush phone calls between Urban's staff and the hospital's communications team — the star insisted there be no publicity around the visit.

Within 24 hours of that first tweet, and several hours before his sold-out Oct. 18 Toledo concert, Urban secretly entered the hospital to pay a visit to superfan Marissa English, 25.

Urban spent nearly an hour in English's hospital room. He held her hand and leaned close to her ear as he spoke to her so softly even her mother could not hear what was said. Though a ventilator stopped English from speaking, when the man she calls "Mr. Hottie" serenaded her with his hit "Blue Ain't Your Color," she mouthed the words, and beamed.

"It was amazing — it was a dream come true for Marissa," says English's mom, Marley Matthews. "It's all she's ever asked for — to see Keith Urban — and to see the joy and excitement in her was so heartwarming.

w181215_CelebrityVisits-2-aTwenty One Pilots' drummer Josh Dun, at left, and frontman Tyler Joseph visit with a delighted Rue Davis. Together with a staffer and another patient at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital in St. Louis, Davis set in motion a social media blitz that convinced the alt-rock stars to visit the hospital before their October concert.
Photo courtesy of SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital

"And how the St. Vincent team came together to do this was amazing, too," she says.

Urban dedicated the evening's concert to English and has mentioned her in subsequent appearances.

The hospital can be a very stressful place for patients — and especially so for children and young adults. But when singers, actors, sports stars or costumed characters come to call, the joy flows from patients to performers and back again.

Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun, the pop and alt-rock duo Twenty One Pilots, fill arenas around the world. Their 2015 breakout album "Blurryface" sold over 7 million copies. So, when the bandmates made a surprise visit to SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital in St. Louis in October, they needed no introduction. Joseph brought along a ukulele and played a song for the dozens of pediatric patients gathered in the atrium for the meet and greet.

Joseph and Dun worked the room, talking one-on-one with each child, signing autographs and posing for pictures.

Denise Nazzaro, public relations consultant with Cardinal Glennon, says the duo asked: "'Are there any kids we missed?' They were very passionate that they wanted to see every patient" in the atrium.

Many of the band's songs explore anxiety, depression and isolation. Cardinal Glennon music therapist Kelli McKee frequently uses those songs with patients experiencing these emotions as they cope with serious diagnoses.

McKee says lead singer Joseph has popularized the ukulele among young people, and many patients ask her to teach them the band's songs on the instrument.

McKee says she and two teen patients — Rue Davis and Rachael Sansoucie — came up with the idea to try to persuade the band to visit the hospital while they were in St. Louis for an Oct. 19 arena performance. Rue had a special code to buy tickets, but her oncologist said the infection risk was too great during her cancer treatment for her to go.

The teens thought a lighthearted music video would be a good way to make their case for an impromptu "house concert."

Dozens of hospital staff reprised Twenty One Pilots' cover of Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling In Love," in the video, which was posted to the hospital's social media accounts. A local TV station picked up the story, amplifying its reach.

A smiling Rachael told a TV reporter covering Twenty One Pilots' visit that she connects with the band's songs. "They present a melancholy feeling. It's what you feel in a hospital. It's not horrible but not nice."

Since Rue was under hospital isolation precautions, Joseph and Dun visited with her in a private room, autographing a ukulele for her.

Transformative visits
CHRISTUS Health's Children's Hospital of San Antonio has welcomed Disney princesses, Star Wars fleet crews, various superheroes and — most recently on Nov. 9 — Optimus Prime and Bumblebee, characters from the Transformers franchise.

w181215_CelebrityVisits-5-aTransformers character Bumblebee makes a powerful impression on a patient of The Children's Hospital of San Antonio, part of CHRISTUS Health. The truck behind Bumblebee is Optimus Prime, another Transformer that left pediatric patients in awe during a "meet and greet" last month.
Photo courtesy of The Children's Hospital of San Antonio

"Patients who were visited by the Transformers were in awe," says Jessica Clayton, the hospital's child life coordinator. Children's faces lit up when they came outside and saw the Optimus Prime full-size semitruck with a light and sound system and the man-sized Bumblebee character, and its related muscle car. "It is quite magical to see someone you've only seen on television," she says.

"The partnerships we have with special visitors, like the Transformers, help lead to joyful kids, which leads to less stress for the family, which leads to faster healing and positive well-being," says Clayton.

Stefan Wilson with a fan
w181215_CelebrityVisits-4-aIndyCar racer Stefan Wilson poses with a fan during a May visit to Indianapolis' Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St. Vincent, part of Ascension.

Hometown heroes
With the Indianapolis Motor Speedway nearby and with a namesake who was a star Indianapolis Colts player, Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St. Vincent welcomes numerous professional athletes and race-car drivers for patient visits.

Retired NFL quarterback Manning, and other Indianapolis Colts players stop by the Indianapolis hospital periodically. And, in May, a couple of weeks before he was to drive in the Indy 500, fan favorite Stefan Wilson popped by the children's hospital for a repeat visit. He greeted patients as an ambassador of a nonprofit called Racing for Kids, which raises awareness of the health care needs of children.

Danielle Brassard is project coordinator for pediatrics at Peyton Manning Children's Hospital, which is part of Ascension. She says, "Patients always enjoy special visitors as it serves as a distraction to their hospitalization and makes them feel special that someone has taken the time to come to the hospital to see them."

» View a photo gallery of celebrity appearances around the ministry.

Sportscaster Costas generates $17 million over 30-plus years for Cardinal Glennon

While celebrity pop-ins raise patients' spirits, long-term fundraising partnerships between hospitals and celebrity benefactors can have a more permanent impact, providing visibility and money for equipment, services and building projects.

A three-decades' long relationship between sportscaster Bob Costas and St. Louis' SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital has generated millions of dollars of donations for the facility and inspired people to volunteer, according to information from the hospital.

The partnership between Costas and Cardinal Glennon began in 1988 when a fundraising committee at the hospital reached out to Costas to ask him whether he would support the facility. He said he would, and he and the committee came up with the idea of a benefit in the format of an annual roast with a keynote speaker. In time, Costas and the hospital's foundation replaced the roast with an annual benefit featuring a celebrity performer. Costas has brought in Jerry Seinfeld, Conan O'Brien, Faith Hill and others. The celebrities usually waive their fees so that all ticket proceeds go to The Costas Center for pediatric cancer care at Cardinal Glennon. Costas benefits have generated an estimated $17 million for the center, which was named for Costas in 1998.

Costas was among those who provided donations to support a $7 million renovation of The Costas Center completed last year. Last month, Cardinal Glennon held an event at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in St. Louis to recognize Costas for his 30 years of support. Kennedy Burger, a 9-year-old cancer patient, interviewed Costas on-stage at the event. The effervescent Kennedy charmed Costas and the audience. She even surprised him with an impromptu impression of him. Costas told organizers he'd never forget the experience.

In 1974, early in his career, Costas went to work as a sportscaster for KMOX, a St. Louis radio station whose powerful signal could be heard at night throughout much of the Midwest. NBC Sports hired Costas in 1979, and he became one of the nation's best-known sportscasters. He gained national prominence broadcasting high-profile sports, including football, basketball, baseball, NASCAR, the Olympics and Super Bowl.

While Costas primarily lives in New York, he frequently visits St. Louis. He has said that when asked where he's from, "I'm as apt to say St. Louis as New York."



Copyright © 2018 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.