Much has changed over the course of the last 10 months, and while Pekka Rinne and his Predators teammates haven't been able to see anyone in person at Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt, their contributions are still just as impactful.
Through virtual visits, meal deliveries and, of course, another life-changing donation through the 365 Pediatric Cancer Fund presented by Twice Daily, Rinne and the Preds have continued to make their presence known to patients in the fight of their lives during a pandemic.
The relationship between Nashville's hockey team and the hospital is long standing, and while the support from the Preds is never taken for granted, it reached a new level in 2020. With every organization in the city facing its own challenges, the Predators could have shifted their focus strictly within their own four walls at Bridgestone Arena.
However, that's just not how they've treated the community over the past two decades, and during a year where their city needed assistance more than ever, the Preds have continued to step up.
"I'm not going to lie - being in healthcare right now is really hard, and the community support, particularly from the groups that we have really tight relationships with, is sort of the fuel that keeps us going," President of Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt Meg Rush, MD, MMHC, said. "It helps us to feel good, it helps us to feel like there is a little bit of normalcy even though our connect points come in different ways, and it just reinforces, as a healthcare provider and particularly when we're caring for kids, how much people value what we do and how important it is to our community. It's that affirmation, but it's also the energy. It helps to provide extra energy for those harder days."
The Predators have delivered plenty of that spirit and strength in recent months, and it began right at the start of the pandemic when players started conducting virtual visits with hospital patients. Preds players, like Rinne, have been known to drop by unannounced from time to time at Children's Hospital, but with in-person restrictions faced by a healthcare facility at this time, video chats have become a lifesaver in more ways than one.
Rush says the hospital is blessed to have the technology available to make those visits happen, including through their on-site Seacrest Studios to allow for virtual interaction from room to room, and for so many, seeing their favorite hockey player's smile on their screen makes all the difference.
"Sometimes it's a short hospital stay, but sometimes these kids are here with us for weeks or even months at a time, and to be able to have a little bit of a break or a little bit of a highlight in the day when you have stars like Pekka and Roman [Josi] and [Viktor Arvidsson] come by and engage in the hospital, it just lifts the spirit of the children and the families," Rush said. "What we've tried to do is make a child's hospitalization - we try to normalize it and connect it to real life as much as we can. Kids are supposed to have fun, and so we try to provide some fun, even while they're in the hospital setting. The Preds always bring fun into the hospital."
The most notable interaction between the Preds and the hospital is the annual check presentation through the 365 Fund, which was started by Rinne and former Predators Captain Shea Weber during the 2012-13 season, as a way to give back to help find a cure for pediatric cancer.
This year's allotment totaled $365,000.20 and pushed the all-time donation amount north of $3.3 million since the Fund's inception. The impacts are numerous, but one study that began right here in Nashville thanks to the Fund is now getting national attention.
One of Vanderbilt's young oncologists, Rush says, is researching how to detect infections in children who are going through chemotherapy treatments, and the early work is now part of a multicenter trial across 18 other organizations around the country.
"His early work that was supported by the Preds and the 365 Fund has basically now translated into a larger multicenter study that will influence, I'm going to guess, how we really look and how we can anticipate and how we can maybe ward off or treat earlier signs of infection in children who are through the immune system at their lowest point, and that's just incredible," Rush said. "The fact that his work is now multiplied as part of a multicenter study is just remarkable. It's that kind of work that maybe isn't as immediately visible as the smile on a child's face when Pekka and Roman and other players show up, but it's that kind of work that is making a difference in all children with cancer going forward.
"The message is that contributing to the 365 Fund is helping us take care of kids better, smarter, and that the work that we are able to look at here locally, sometimes will carry into a much bigger story that leads to a faster, new way of doing things, and that's pretty powerful."
Of course, those face-to-face - and now virtual - visits are just as meaningful to those in the moment, and they'll continue in whatever form is necessary as the current climate allows.
Pandemic or not, the Preds know what a simple conversation can do for a child, and so do those tasked with making them better again.
"We've utilized all of our resources to make sure that when the players had downtime and wanted to connect, we made that happen, and that's just special because it helps our children and our families," Rush said. "It's been hardest on them. We've had to adjust our visitation, we've had to adjust how many family members can be here and connect, and that just places so much more stress on the entire family unit when you have a hospitalized child. Having the players spend time with us and do some of the things they historically do but adapting into the virtual world has just been truly remarkable and so appreciated for our families. It's just been wonderful."
As December continues, the Predators are pursuing their goal to raise $36,500 throughout the month to benefit the 365 Fund. The Preds Foundation has set up a GoFundMe campaign, and in honor of the Preds goaltender and co-founder of the 365 Fund, the Preds are asking fans to make a $35 donation - Rinne's number, of course - to help those in need. The campaign runs through the end of December, so click here to make a donation this holiday season.