Choco’s Gratitude Tour: The Greatest Hits

Choco Pillow Framed_square
This Choco Bear pillow was placed inside the 1964 time capsule. Read the blog post to see what else was included

When I began my gratitude tour last October to help celebrate CHOC’s 50th anniversary, I had no idea that I’d meet so many cool people and see so much fun stuff.

I’ve had a blast making my way around the hospital, meeting new people and blogging about my experiences! And even better, once my 50-week tour ends next month, I’ll always have these posts to read again and remember all these awesome times.

Here’s a look at some of my favorite posts from this past year:

CHOC Campus 1964
Here’s CHOC in its early days. Read this post to learn how the hospital campus has evolved in 50 years.

Sing-a-long: The Choco Bear Song: Did you know I have my very own song? Read this post to learn the lyrics and sing along with me.

CHOC Children’s Campus: Then and Now: This post was a blast from the past! Read to learn about how CHOC’s campus has changed in the last half century.

Choco Bear’s Evolving Style: I’ve had quite a few looks since 1964. This post shows photographs of yours truly throughout the years.

Inside CHOC’s 1964 Time Capsule: CHOC staff hid a time capsule to commemorate the hospital’s opening in 1964. Read this post to see what was buried inside.  

Inside CHOC’s 1993 Time Capsule: This post gave an inside look at what CHOC tucked inside its second time capsule.

During my tour, I’ve also met many really neat people. Let me introduce you to some of the new friends I made this year:

Meet Parker, one of my new friends I met this year. Read this post to learn more about the graduate from CHOC’s Small Baby Unit.

Parker: Meet Parker, a graduate of CHOC’s Small Baby Unit, a special part of the neonatal intensive care unit dedicated to the care of micro-preemies. When we first met, she had just celebrated her first birthday.

Bill: Bill received treatment for leukemia at CHOC in the 1970s, and went on to become a hospital chaplain in Orange County.

Josh: This young man was treated at CHOC for childhood allergies and asthma. Josh was so inspired that he became a pediatrician and performed his residency here at CHOC.

Meet Amy and Emily, two sisters who were treated at CHOC.

Amy and Emily: These ladies are sisters who both underwent treatment at the Hyundai Cancer Institute at CHOC Children’s. They are both very accomplished and so inspiring.

You can check out more posts like these from my gratitude tour at and look for more in coming weeks. We still have some more time until CHOC’s big day on Oct. 4, so you can bet I’ll be making the most of it.

Thank you for reading!


Thank You, Nursing Mothers!

Another group of people I am extremely grateful for are the community’s nursing mothers, who can also help the babiesCHOC_Breast_Milk_bank receiving care at CHOC.

Under CHOC’s breast milk donation service, women can donate their extra breast milk in the name of CHOC to help premature and sick babies.

Oftentimes, women who give birth prematurely have difficulty nursing, so donations help ensure infants in CHOC’s neonatal intensive care unit have access to breast milk. This is an excellent way for women with extra milk to help ensure babies have bright futures.

The program allows women to pump milk at home, freeze it and send it to a third-party company for processing and safety testing. After it’s pasteurized and standardized, the milk gets sent to CHOC.

On behalf of CHOC physicians and nurses, I thank the mothers who help care for the hospital’s tiniest patients in their own special way.

Learn more about how you can contribute to CHOC’s breast milk donation program.

Surgical Services: Then and Now

Operating Room_lgIt’s been so much fun this past year to reflect on how CHOC has evolved since my first visit in 1964.

And I most certainly cannot forget the changes in surgical services, which CHOC has specialized in since its opening nearly 50 years ago.

CHOC has the latest surgical equipment, technology and techniques, including minimally invasive procedures and robotic surgery methods.

At CHOC’s Tidwell Procedure Center, fully-integrated operating rooms give surgeons full, wireless control of cameras and lights and the ability to view all of the room’s monitors and camera images, patient records and imaging reports on large, flat-screen displays as needed throughout the procedure.

Surgeons can also consult with other surgeons in other operating rooms and our hospital pathologists in real-time using video conferencing to discuss the surgery as it is happening.

Another big change since the hospital’s opening in 1964 has been the addition of child life specialists. These important CHOC staff members work with patients to help ease any fears and worries about a procedure, and to improve understanding of surgery through developmentally appropriate methods.

Surgery is scary for anyone of any age, but I know I would feel better knowing I was in CHOC’s care!


Surgical Services at CHOC Children’s specializes in providing patients — from infants to young adults — with the most state-of-the-art services in a compassionate, family-centered environment. CHOC’s experience in exclusively treating children, teens and young adults makes it the expert in pediatric surgery.


Thank You Pet Therapy Dogs — and Their Owners!

CHOC_Pet_TherapyYou might find this hard to believe, but I’m not the only friendly, fur-covered creature roaming the halls at CHOC Children’s.

That’s right: The hospital is home to more than 40 pet therapy dogs.

This has been a big development since I first visited CHOC in 1964. These caring canines – and their obliging owners – dedicate their time to help bring smiles to patients and their families, with the hopes of relieving stress, normalizing the hospital experience, and providing distraction, conversation and encouragement.

Specially certified, each dog is escorted throughout the hospital with its handler. They frequently visit CHOC’s Tidwell Procedure Center, clinics, Outpatient Infusion Center and the Julia and George Argyros Emergency Department.

Each dog has a trading card with their picture and pertinent information like whether they prefer tennis balls or Frisbees. Patients love collecting cards and I love watching children and their families interact with these delightful dogs.

It’s a sure bet that the dogs will bring happiness to children who are in stressful situations. And I love seeing them too – they just seem to get me, you know?

Thank you, pet therapy dogs and their owners, for helping to make hospital visits brighter for CHOC patients and families!

CHOC Children’s Campus: Then and Now

CHOC in its earliest days

It’s been fascinating to watch how medicine and technology have changed at CHOC Children’s since I first visited 50 years ago. But just as amazing is how much the hospital’s campus has evolved since 1964.

As you know now, CHOC opened its doors in Orange on Oct. 5, 1964. At the time, the four-story, 62-bed facility was situated on the campus of St. Joseph Hospital. The building cost $2.5 million to build, and took about five years of planning.

Expansion began almost immediately, and hasn’t stopped since: In 1965, outpatient clinics opened on campus. By 1968, CHOC’s bed count increased to 104.

The CHOC Tower

In 1975, a nearby five-story building was purchased to house the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and pediatric intensive care unit (PICU). This building, known as the CHOC Tower, increased the hospital’s bed count to 202 by 1978.

A nearby 93,000-square-foot building was purchased from Pacific Telephone Co. in 1983 to make room for administration, education and a new clinic and ambulatory care space. This facility is now known as CHOC West.

The North Tower
The North Tower

In 1992, CHOC completed construction on a six-story acute care hospital, requiring the demolition of the CHOC Tower.

That space is known today as the North Tower, the sister of the Bill Holmes Tower that opened in 2013. The 425,000-square-foot space tripled CHOC’s size and brought all services under one roof for the first time after nearly 50 years of sharing services with St. Joseph Hospital.

And CHOC will continue to grow: The Holmes Tower includes empty space that can be built out as new needs arise.

The Bill Holmes Tower
The Bill Holmes Tower

CHOC has continued to grow outside of Orange as well: Nearly a dozen clinics dot the county, as well as Riverside County. Also, we have a mobile clinic that moves all over the place.

And don’t forget that CHOC Children’s health system includes a separate hospital located in Mission Viejo:  CHOC Children’s at Mission Hospital opened in 1993, and occupies the fifth floor of Mission Hospital. The hospital provides excellent care to the families of south Orange County and beyond.

Isn’t it comforting to know that CHOC stands ready to help children wherever they may be? What do you remember about CHOC’s campus through the years? Share your memory on social media with the hashtag #thxCHOC.


A Bright Future: Bill’s Story

After 50 years of care, CHOC Children’s has no shortage of inspiring people who attribute their bright futures to the hospital. I just met another: Bill Wells, who began treatment for leukemia in 1970 and is now a hospital chaplain.

Bill WellsEach and every day in his work as a hospital chaplain in Orange County, Bill Wells draws on his experience as a patient at CHOC Children’s decades ago.

“What is most important to me in this story is the memory that I have of CHOC, the people, physicians and staff,” he says. “It was always about compassion and caring and being available to children on a level that meets their needs. That has had a huge influence on me and my work as a hospital chaplain.”

Bill, now 50, began treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) at CHOC in 1970 at the age of 7. A Tustin native, Bill recalls experiencing bad pain in his legs, as well as frequent fevers and colds.

Though his pain was initially dismissed by a physician as growing pains and the fevers as the flu, a second opinion led to fast admission and diagnosis at CHOC. There, Bill briefly went on the standard treatment, but then was selected for a new experimental protocol, he says.

At the time, children with ALL had a life expectancy of only two or three years, and the probability of living five or more years beyond diagnosis was zero, Bill recalled.

One of Bill’s strongest memories of his time at CHOC was listening to a nurse sing to him.

“I had the most awesome nurses,” he says. “One nurse used to sing all the time. What that said to me was that she cared a ton about me.”

After five years of chemotherapy and hospitalizations, Bill’s parents stopped therapy at his physician’s recommendation. He then began regular checkups, bone marrow aspirations, spinal taps and blood work that tapered off until he was about 19 years old.

The cancer never returned, but Bill’s experience at CHOC left a lasting impression. Possibly setting the stage for his career, Bill began serving as a mentor and friend to other young people undergoing cancer treatment at CHOC shortly after he ended therapy.

In 2002, Bill reflected on that volunteer experience when he found himself taking stock of his life’s accomplishments. Though he was enjoying a career as a successful musician, Bill wanted more meaning to his life and considered pursuing a career as a hospital chaplain.

“I kept asking myself, ‘If I died tomorrow, would I be satisfied with my life?’” he says. “My answer was no.”

Bill went on to earn two graduate degrees, complete chaplain training programs at three hospitals, and become ordained as an Episcopal priest.

When Bill began a hospital internship at UCLA, he requested to serve in pediatrics and pediatric oncology. His supervisor asked how his own experience with cancer and hospitalization would affect his work. Bill didn’t think it would do so much at all – but he quickly realized he was wrong.

“I have learned a great deal since that first, incredibly naïve day,” says Bill, who now serves as a chaplain for two Orange County hospitals. “My life, your life, our stories, have gifted us with experiences that have taught us compassion and have set us on a path of using our hands, our minds and our hearts to help others.”

CHOC Now Serving Corona

I was so lucky 50 years ago to have CHOC Children’s nearby when I fell DSC_0386out of that tree and hurt myself. Ever since, I’ve been a big fan and a grateful neighbor.

And now, my friends to the east are in luck: CHOC has expanded its medical services to Riverside County.

With the recent opening of the CHOC Children’s Health Center in Corona, children in Corona and surrounding areas will have access to quality pediatric specialty care much closer to home.

In this new, state-of-the-art facility, CHOC offers the following pediatric specialty care services in a convenient, family centered-care environment:

  • CardiologyDSC_0356
  • Pediatric Surgery
  • Pulmonology
  • Neurology
  • Endocrine
  • Diabetes
  • Gastroenterology
  • Rheumatology
  • Orthopaedics

Lucky for my fellow tree climbers, patients will also have access to X-ray services on select days, as well as diagnostic services.

CHOC Children’s Health Center in Corona is located at 854 Magnolia Ave. in Corona, CA 92879.

Hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. For scheduling and authorizations, call 888-770-2462.


A Bright Future: Amy’s and Emily’s story

I’m more than half way through my 50-week CHOC gratitude tour, and I just met two others who want to join me in thanking the hospital for our bright futures: Meet Amy and Emily.

Sisters Amy and Emily believe they IMAGE_2have two birthdays: the days they were born, and the days they were diagnosed with cancer before beginning treatment at CHOC Children’s.

Each day is met with equal celebration. Amy and Emily, ages 29 and 18, see the anniversary or their diagnosis – their cancerversary – as the day they began the long road toward health.

“We think that’s the day of them starting to get better,” says their mother, Denise Justiniano. “We made that day a good memory. We eat dinner together as a family and make a fun time out of it.”

Both women received treatment as children at the Hyundai Cancer Institute at CHOC. Amy spent six months in the hospital after being diagnosed with lymphoma in 2001. Diagnosed with leukemia in 2008, Emily still receives treatment at CHOC’s outpatient infusion clinic.

And today both women are moving forward: Emily graduated from high school last June and is now in her second semester at college. About seven months ago, Amy gave birth to her second daughter.

“The nurses and doctors at CHOC are amazing,” Amy says. “Not only do they offer the best medical care, but they are empathetic and caring, and offer emotional support in a way that you would expect only a friend to. If it weren’t for CHOC, I wouldn’t be here today. They made a huge difference in my life and helped me become the person that I am today.”

Watching two children battle cancer was heart-wrenching, but Denise credits CHOC staff and fellow families and patients with helping to ease the experience.

“When we first arrived at CHOC with Amy, everyone came out of their room as we were coming down the hall,” she says. “They’re were talking to us, patting us on the back. It was like a warm hug.”

And their time at CHOC made an impression on more than Amy’s and Emily’s health: Amy is a nurse at a local hospital, and Emily is pursuing a career as a nurse practitioner.

“For us, it was the nurses who made CHOC home for us and made it manageable and joked with us,” Denise says.

And CHOC’s impression has extended further into the Justiniano family: Inspired by the CHOC child life staff who helped her sisters cope with hospitalization, a third daughter, Sarah, volunteers at CHOC and is pursuing a career in the child life department.


Thank You, CHOC Volunteers!

This week, National Volunteer Week, provides us withBetty Keith-cropped_1 a formal occasion to recognize volunteers at CHOC Children’s. But not a day goes by that CHOC staff, physicians, patients, families and I don’t recognize the important work that volunteers do here.

CHOC is so lucky to have more than 1,100 awesome volunteers who spend more than 9,000 hours a month providing services ranging from office work to cuddling tiny babies.

I want to introduce you to one volunteer in particular: Betty Keith. She and I became friends in 1983, when she first started volunteering at CHOC. Thirty years later, Betty still volunteers once a week and has logged more than 19,400 hours at CHOC.

Q: When did you start volunteering at CHOC and why?
A: I started in June 1983. I love children and I wanted to help them as much as I could.

Q: Tell me about the various work and roles you’ve performed in your time at CHOC.
A: I’ve been all over. I worked in the volunteer office, filed papers in the associate health department, and helped in the gift shop. I’ve worked on the floors, answered phones in the administrative office, and worked with cancer research. I’ve done a lot. All the employees and other volunteers I’ve met through the years are wonderful.

Q: CHOC sure has changed since you first started, right?
A: Oh, my goodness. It has changed so much. It’s a beautiful hospital.

Q: Have you volunteered at other places too?
A: The most important to me is CHOC, but I also volunteered at the city clerk’s office, the library, the Sergerstrom Center for the Arts and South Coast Repertory. I first helped in my kids’ schools. Helping children was important to me, and my husband didn’t want me going out into the working field. I had to do something.

Q: How much longer can CHOC count on your service?
A: I have told everyone that I was going to quit at 20,000 hours. Volunteering keeps you going. You’re getting paid indirectly by the help you give and the satisfaction you get.

Q: When you’re not at CHOC, what else do you like to do in your free time?
A: I go to Bible study, and go to the movies once a week with friends and out to lunch. I have two children, four grandchildren and four great grandchildren.

Thank you for your tens of thousands of hours of service, Betty! Learn more about volunteer services at CHOC.

Choco Bear’s Evolving Style

CHOC Children’s and pediatric health care have changed so much since 1964. And I suppose that I have as well.

I was looking at old photographs recently and realized that I’ve had quite a few looks in the last 50 years. Can you blame a bear for trying? When you’re friends with all the folks at CHOC, it makes perfect sense that I’d want to look my best.

Check out a gallery of my various looks in the last 50 years. What’s your favorite?