ST. PETERSBURG — The long day's journey across the street began just before 6 a.m. Saturday — an exodus of 169 of the sickest children in Pinellas County and their haggard mothers and fathers, many with bed hair, tired eyes and grizzled chins. They all marched toward a new future for All Children's Hospital.
All Children's moved lock, stock and children from its old building at 801 Sixth St. S to its new home at 501 Sixth Ave. S. Its old emergency center stood deserted, computers still warm. The new emergency center was already treating its first arrival by 6 a.m.
The old building cost $4.25 million in 1967. The new one cost 100 times that much. It's a million square feet.
The caravan spanned only a couple of blocks and was all indoors, shielded from the wet gloom of the day. The route was peppered with ER physicians, neonatologists, respiratory therapists and nurses. They carried radios, batteries, IV pumps, oxygen tanks and heart-lung machines.
The action was monitored from a windowless room in the new hospital. Walkie-talkies, pagers, cell phones and laptops littered command central. A projection screen tracked the movement of every patient. The scene was one of million-dollar technology and raw human need.
Parents' miracle first
Annmaria Augustine of Hudson — born two months too soon 51 days ago — was first to go on the trek. She had not been expected to survive until birth. Her parents call her a miracle. Her mother, Molly, walked beside her as did Dr. Roberto Sosa, who founded the neonatal unit for premature and sick infants in 1976.
Nurse Kati Claus, who has worked at All Children's for 39 years, had the honor of pushing the crib. She cried for joy when they reached the new unit.
Sixty-eight more babies from Annmaria's unit followed her. The tiniest, a girl, weighed just 580 grams. How small is that? Neonatologist Dr. Anthony Napolitano said, "Think about a pound of macaroni."
The children moved through a labyrinth of basement hallways, elevators and street crossovers that took them through the bowels of the old hospital, inside Bayfront Medical Center, and finally into the new All Children's. Each trip took about 15 minutes. But the journey took a year and a half to plan.
It took that long because of the risks of moving infants with skin as translucent as tissue paper, vulnerable to the slightest chill, and whose veins are nearly microscopic. Many bristle with feeding and breathing tubes and IV lines. One bump could be catastrophic.
In "hundreds and hundreds" of walks, Napolitano said he identified every bump he could find in the 42-year-old hallways and saw that they were smoothed out.
By the end of the day, that kind of vigilance had paid off: None of the children suffered so much as a scratch in the move, officials said.
Some of the children rode in transport isolettes normally used in ambulances. Weighing a bit more than 50 pounds, they are virtual planets on wheels, each manufacturing its own atmosphere and heat, and shielded by double-lined plastic walls.
Some others rode in "giraffes," named for their high-necked hoods. These neonatal beds have chemically heated mattresses mounted on lazy susans. Nurses call them Cadillacs, because they cost just as much.
Many older children rode in low-tech wheelchairs, or wheeled wagons. More than 300 volunteers in red T-shirts — 50 were needed just to help push wheelchairs — were deployed.
Each child was allowed one parent to come along on the trip through the crowded route.
'Hope gets us up'
On through the day, the little travelers went.
Among the earliest was Olivea D'Agostino. Note the word "live" in her name, said her father, Stephen, from Palm Harbor.
She turned 3 months old on Christmas Eve. She has a heart defect. She uses a ventilator to breathe.
"Hope gets us up," her dad said. "You can live without a lot of things, but not hope."
Olivea was headed for the hospital's new Heart Center, where her mom, Virginia, waited. Her father learned CPR before the Saturday walk, just in case.
Another child, regally named Edgar Alejandro Citron, was supposed to be born in March, but arrived on Dec. 11. His mom and dad, Karen and Miguel of Madeira Beach, can't hold him for more than 10 minutes. Karen made the walk with Edgar to the new neonatal unit.
The Warrior Princess
After the little ones came the big kids. You could call Aniyah Torres that. She's 7, but a pink sign that hung from the door of her room in the old building reminded doctors and nurses of her nickname: Warrior Princess.
The Warrior Princess and her family have been living off and on at All Children's since late October, when three ear infections in one month led to a diagnosis of leukemia. Each round of chemotherapy requires Aniyah to spend three weeks in the hospital, then she gets one week at home in Tampa. She is on her third round.
The pink sign came with Aniyah on the wheelchair trip to the new hospital, past all the people greeting her. Aniyah said she felt like Miss America.
The first thing she noticed in her new room on the seventh floor was the big flat-screen TV and the window with water views. Her father, Argenis, checked out the pull-out sofa where he and her mother will take turns sleeping.
"Comfy," Aniyah decided. Her father, used to passing the nights fitfully in a chair in the old hospital, beamed in agreement.
"What are these?" he asked Aniyah, pulling at the bins at the bottom of the brightly colored furniture.
"Drawers," she said. "You don't have to put your clothes in my drawer anymore."
Before her IVs went back in, Aniyah got one more surprise. In the new cancer unit, a special airflow system allows children with compromised immune systems to move around more freely.
Tugging boots over purple leggings that matched the scarf covering her patchy hair, Aniyah stomped down the hall to a playroom stocked with toys.
She loaded a child-size cart with plastic groceries and pushed it to the little kitchen. Singing softly to herself, she pretended to cook an egg.
Out with the old
One by one, the rooms in the old All Children's emptied. Shortly before noon, about an hour ahead of schedule, only Tristan Aveyard remained.
But first, the Tarpon Springs Middle School eighth-grader left her mark. "Out with the old and in with the NEW 2010!" she wrote in red ink on the board in her room.
She had been at the hospital less than a week, long enough to be tired of sharing the room with another girl, and watching her mother Angi have to sleep in a chair.
When she rolled out of her room in a wheelchair, a crowd had gathered. Applause and cries of "last one" followed Tristan on the route between All Children's past and its future.
Once the crowds left, she reveled in her private room and toured her new, eighth-floor unit. A nurse updated a patient's chart. A mother curled up under a blanket on the sleeper sofa in her child's room. Tristan said "Hi" to a boy playing with plastic trucks on his bed.
Tristan will celebrate her 14th birthday in about a week. She could be in her new room for a while. Sick with sinus infections and bronchitis ever since she was little, doctors recently told Tristan she has cystic fibrosis.
In her new room, Tristan looked out her window at the boats and the Sunshine Skyway. She flicked on the flat-screen TV, which is pretty cool because it has Internet, even if MySpace was blocked.
She and her mom heard people say the new hospital is so nice they won't want to leave. And she's getting settled in, even bringing a comforter from home.
But not want to leave? No hospital, not even this one, is that great.
Like her mom warned her: ''Don't get too comfy.''