ST. PETERSBURG — Many of the more than 200 employees of Kindred Hospital St. Petersburg began folding paper cranes in 2006, learning all of the steps until their fingers knew them.
They planned to give the origami birds to their chief executive, Pamela Riter, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. If they could make 1,000, a Japanese legend maintained, their wish for her recovery would come true.
A Newport, Ky., native, Mrs. Riter earned a nursing degree at Northern Kentucky University. She worked in area hospitals before moving to Tampa in 1980. She worked in Tampa hospitals, including University Community Hospital, moving up through positions in infection control, quality review and as an administrator.
She took over as CEO of Kindred Hospital in 1997, the year it opened.
"When we had hurricanes, she was the first person to get us cots and sleep over at the hospital," said Dr. Fadi Saba, a former Kindred chief of staff. "She pitched in with cleaning and moving beds. She served food to the staff and patients."
She challenged and empowered. "She would let you know if you were doing a great job," said lead case manager Helene Bush.
She discovered the lump during a self-exam about five years ago. She underwent chemotherapy, radiation and surgery but never complained.
"It's just my piece and my turn," she said.
When her hair fell out, she went without a wig because it was too hot.
Her staffers cut their hair short, too. They wore pink bracelets, walked for miles and raised money for All Children's Hospital.
In their spare time, they made cranes out of wrapping paper, construction paper and stationery. They folded and folded and tucked and folded, at least two-dozen steps for one bird.
"We went to a website to learn how to do it," said Bush. "Everyone started doing it."
Mrs. Riter took a crack at the origami, too. She remained hopeful even after Steve Riter, her husband of 24 years, died at age 60 of prostate cancer in March.
She died Jan. 8 at Hospice House Brookside. Mrs. Riter was 55.
Friends gathered at her condominium recently to share stories and laugh and cry.
"It was beautiful," said Christina Gibson, Mrs. Riter's daughter. "There were cranes everywhere. In baskets, in centerpieces, displayed in bowls."
Guests at the celebration each took home a crane.
"We were all hoping the story behind it would be true," said Bush. "You make cranes and you get your wish."
But in a sense, she added, their wishes were at least partially realized.
"We got an additional five years with her. Considering what her diagnosis was, I consider myself lucky."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]