Since its opening in 1985, Shriners Hospitals for Children — Tampa has treated the needs of more than 50,000 youngsters with a host of orthopedic issues throughout Florida and beyond.
The administration and staff at the hospital, located on the University of South Florida campus, pride themselves in giving a warm welcome to each and every child along with the accompanying members of their households.
“We treat the whole child and the whole family,” said Jamie Santillo, a public relations specialist at the Shriners hospital in Tampa.
Recently Santillo personally proved her point.
In her dealings throughout the facility, she’s become acquainted with patients Lenabelle Mijares, 5, and her 6-year-old sister, Lilly-Ahna, daughters of Laurie and Joseph Mijares, of Inverness.
“Both have smiles that will melt your heart,” Santillo said.
Lenabelle is being treated for tibial torsion, an inward twisting of the shinbone, as well as hip dysplasia and a leg-length discrepancy. Shriners’ orthopedic specialists have fitted her with custom-made orthotics.
Lilly-Ahna has scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, and receives care through the hospital’s spinal services program.
Since learning that Lenabelle also suffers from a form of autism that affects her speech, Santillo has made it a priority to call the child every evening to engage her in conversation.
During one of their chats, the child told Santillo she was upset because she can’t ride a bike with her big sister due to her disability.
“When her sisters (including 4-year-old Asiah) and her cousins all ride bikes like all little girls love to do, Lenabelle cries,” Santillo said. “She would get on her bike and try with all her might but just could not pedal to make it move.”
The child’s sadness touched the heart of Santillo, who has muscular dystrophy, a hereditary condition marked by the progressive weakening of her body’s muscles.
Santillo, who today uses a motorized wheelchair for her own mobility, felt compelled to ensure that her little friend could keep pace while playing outdoors.
She placed a call to Kirsten Thomas, executive director of Julie Weintraub’s Hands Across the Bay, a nonprofit organization known for its acts of kindness for people in need. And within days, a Fisher-Price Power Wheels Girls’ bright pink Barbie Jammin’ Jeep arrived at the hospital tagged for Lenabelle.
“When we received the helping hand request to assist little Lenabelle in getting a Barbie car to enable her to enjoy the outdoors with friends and family, we didn’t think twice about getting it for her,” Thomas said.
Santillo scheduled a date and time with the child’s parents to surprise Lenabelle with her brand- new 12-volt-battery-powered toy. And while Lilly-Ahna was also in on the secret, she vowed to keep her lips sealed until the day arrived and Lenabelle could experience the joy for herself.
“Now she’ll get to ride with me and have fun,” said Lilly-Ahna as she excitedly stood with her parents in the hospital children’s activity center near the child-sized vehicle awaiting the arrival of Lenabelle, who entered the room hand-in-hand with Santillo.
Lenabelle let out a squeal and turned toward Santillo asking, “Is that for me?”
Outfitted in a sundress and hair ribbons that perfectly matched the color of her new Power Wheels, she promptly climbed in and put the pedal to the metal, paving a speedy and somewhat erratic path around the room that brought lots of laughter and caused a handful of onlookers to sprint out of her way.
Lilly-Ahna soon joined her and together they figured out how to control the car’s speed and safely navigate the vehicle.
Standing on the sideline, their mother pointed to a sign on a nearby wall that read, “Love to the Rescue,” which she said aptly describes the care and affection afforded to every child and relative who enters the hospital.
“It’s just like family here. Everyone shows so much love,” she said. “And I can’t say enough about Jamie. She calls Lenabelle every night on her own time.”
Joyce McKenzie can be reached at [email protected]