How Dancing Makes A Difference: Crystal’s Story

By Eliza Kanner, HuskyTHON

crystal-1_huskythonOn February 18 more than 2,500 HuskyTHON participants will dance all through the night. They will spend 18 hours on their feet, dancing to raise funds for Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. When I spoke to Crystal Torraco on a Sunday afternoon, she was enjoying a day off after spending the previous night on her feet, but rather than spending it at the student recreation center at the University of Connecticut, she was making her rounds as a Registered Nurse in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Connecticut Children’s.

Crystal spent her college days heavily involved with organizations at UConn that pride themselves in community service and philanthropic efforts. She was a counselor at Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Ashford, Connecticut, and held numerous leadership positions within HuskyTHON. Dancers are asked to find their “why,” and Crystal’s “why” has changed since working at Connecticut Children’s. “I danced for my future patients and now, I donate to those who dance for the patients I take care of each and every day,” Crystal said.

Working at Connecticut Children’s was Crystal’s first choice when applying to jobs after graduating from Northeastern University’s Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) program. “(Being involved with) HuskyTHON allowed me to go into the hospital and really see the impact it was making. So when it came down to applying for jobs, I knew I wanted to work in a children’s hospital…the first thing that came to mind was Connecticut Children’s.”

The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit strives to have continuity of care, so Crystal is with the same patient family for an extended period of time. “We take the extra time to explain things to parents and to get them involved. We value it so much” Crystal explained.

Crystal feels the impact of HuskyTHON every day at work. “Huge fundraisers like HuskyTHON that go toward the hospital allows us to go beyond the normal supplies we need, it allows us to get newer technology, newer products. It helps us continually advance.”

crystal-huskython_dancersBabies born premature (prior to 32 weeks) or weighing 1500 grams (around 2.2 lbs.), are immediately placed in a giraffe warmer. This lifesaving incubator and radiant warmer auto regulates the temperature to provide a healing environment for the baby. HuskyTHON’s goal is to utilize the money raised on “100K in One Day” to purchase four giraffe warmers for the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

“Even one giraffe makes all the difference in a baby’s life, and the care we can provide,” Crystal said. “That’s their safe place–it’s what is keeping them warm and happy and lets us do our job safely and effectively.”

“It makes a huge difference. If we didn’t have the resources and the technology that allows us to do our job every day, it would be really hard,” Crystal said when asked about the impact HuskyTHON has for Connecticut Children’s.

“It’s hard to really see the impact you’re making when dancing, but to see it day by day in my job–and be able to do my job because of the impact HuskyTHON has–it’s huge. It’s really awesome.”

HuskyTHON Hits Home for Student Dancer and Former Patient

nicki-in-hospital-photo-1For the last 15 years, Nicole “Nicki” Cartier has had a close relationship with Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. She describes Connecticut Children’s as a “home away from home,” which makes perfect sense considering the amount of time she has spent there over the years, and the connections with staff she has made along the way.

She was first brought to the emergency room in March of her kindergarten year with what seemed like the flu.  Nicki’s parents thought they would be in and out of the hospital with a quick check-up and prescription for antibiotics. After doctor’s examined Nicki, they realized she was much sicker than anyone originally anticipated. A polyp in her intestine burst, causing an extremely rare bacterial infection to spread throughout her body. She was rushed into her first emergency surgery, which lasted 22 hours. Doctors described her situation as “one-in-a-million” and worked relentlessly to stabilize Nicki, as she returned to the operating room daily for two weeks.

After she made it through her first few surgeries, doctor’s informed her parents that there was still a very long road ahead. Nicki spent the next five months in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Connecticut Children’s on life support as doctors continued to work to repair damages from the initial infection. Nicki lost a kidney, two thirds of her diaphragm, upper leg muscle and lower back muscle. When she was finally strong enough, doctors were able to take her off some of her medications and move her to a recovering inpatient floor. She worked countless hours with physical and occupational therapists to regain skills such as talking, eating, sitting, standing and writing. Day by day Nicki worked to get better in hopes that one day she would be able to go home and return to a more normal life. After 225 consecutive days at Connecticut Children’s, she was able to go home.

nicki-in-hospital_photo-2Spending seven months in the hospital is not something that the typical five-year-old will ever have to deal with, but Connecticut Children’s was there when their help was needed. As a result of losing muscles in her leg, Nicki should not be able to walk, but through physical therapy, and lots of hope, Nicki was able to train other muscles to compensate for it.

“My experiences at Connecticut Children’s were some of the toughest parts of my entire life and I wouldn’t wish that upon any other child, but it has also changed my life for the better and changed my whole perspective on life, which is something I am incredibly grateful for. Every day is truly a blessing,” Nicki said.

Nicki has stayed very connected with staff at the hospital since her discharge. Through the years of follow-up surgeries and physical therapy, Nicki and her family are always looking for ways to give back to Connecticut Children’s and she has shared her story at numerous fundraisers to benefit the hospital. “They saved my life and the only way I know how to return the favor is to spread awareness of the amazing work they do there, in hopes of other little boys and girls being able to receive the same quality care I received when I was sick,” Nicki said when asked why she gives back.

In 2007, Nicki was selected to be the Connecticut Ambassador for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals where she was able to attend a nationwide seminar filled with children from every state who were also advocating on behalf of their local children’s hospitals. This was the first year that Nicki was invited to attend her first HuskyTHON. When looking back at her first HuskyTHON experience, Nicki recalls “As a 10-year-old child, I felt like a rock star having hundreds of college kids cheering for me and raising money for kids like me.” Growing up was hard for Nicki because not many children understood what she had medically endured, so being able to spend time with UConn students who understood the cause and were so passionate about it made her feel so special.

nicki-and-dr-bourqueNicki never missed a HuskyTHON, and when it was time for Nicki to apply to colleges, UConn was on the top of her list. “Everyone always told me to pick a school where I felt like home. Out of all the colleges I’ve ever visited, UConn, especially during HuskyTHON, was where I felt most at home.” She received her acceptance letter three days after HuskyTHON in 2014 and put in her deposit to attend UConn that same day.

Freshman year, Nicki joined the HuskyTHON Management Team, seeing the dance marathon from a new perspective. “Thousands of UConn students have put in countless fundraising hours to support patient like me. It has been amazing to be on the other side and be able to dance in support of other kids at the hospital. I know exactly what they are going through and that just pushes me to work harder to make the event even more successful year after year.” She has made lifelong connections with other families from the hospital, and HuskyTHON is the one event every year that brings them all together.

Nicki continues to be an inspiration to her peers. “It has meant the world to me to see so many other UConn students become so passionate about something that has been such a large part of my life. I’ve had an amazing success story through Connecticut Children’s and it is such a great example of the amazing things can be done there.” This year’s event will be Nicki’s third HuskyTHON on the Management Team.

nicki-1-huskython-photo“The amount of money we have been able to raise is incredible, but what inspires me to keep going is seeing the way it has made such a positive mark on the UConn community. It is amazing to be able to say I was a part of making that happen.” Nicki continues to be amazed at the time students put into making the event a success, even if they have never personally received care at Connecticut Children’s.

HuskyTHON’s success is a reflection of the dedication students at UConn have to making a difference in the lives of kids in Connecticut. “College is a time for making lasting memories, and for so many of us, the best memories have been at HuskyTHON because it has allowed us to use our energy to make a difference and together we have been able to do something incredible.”