With a song in their Sneakers, this group visits the sick for just about any occasion

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Hospital stays can be stressful, especially when you're 5 years old, your intravenous needle won't stay in and you'd rather be at home, writing a wish list to Santa. So when a group of eight holiday carolers trooped into Colt Zdobinski's room in Allegheny General Hospital Suburban Campus in Bellevue Dec. 15, his eyes grew as round and shiny as Christmas tree ornaments, and he snuggled tightly into his mother's embrace.

But after a rousing chorus of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" by the Silver Sneakers Connection chorus, Colt was hesitantly accompanying guitarist Ted Bergfelt on jingle bells to the merry holiday tune of the same name. His eyes were still wide, but he granted the troupe a tiny smile. "That was really nice," said his mom, Wendy Zdobinski, of Bellevue, of the singers' visit.

The Silver Sneakers Connection are senior citizens who belong to the Silver Sneakers exercise group at Lutheran Service Society's PrimeTime Senior Center in Bellevue.

The crooners have brought melodious holiday cheer to Suburban's patients for the past three years. But their repertoire isn't limited to Christmas songs, and "they visit on Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, Mother's Day, patriotic holidays and sometimes just run-of-the-mill days," said Kathy Ferri, manager of community relations and volunteer services at Suburban.

Three years ago, Silver Sneakers coordinator Patricia Pacey, 66, of Avalon, learned from Mrs. Ferri that some children would be caroling in the hospital. The certified yoga and exercise instructor told Mrs. Ferri, "I'm sure we have some people who can sing." Not only does she have about 15 people who most certainly can sing, but she also has Mr. Bergfelt, 78, of Brighton Heights, who strums a mean acoustic guitar and acts as unofficial choir director. "I can play about an hour before my fingers get grooves," he said.

The carolers serenaded patients from the intensive care unit to the pediatric ward, hospital employees on lunch break and those on their feet for 12-hour shifts, even paramedics on an elevator. Faces lit up like Christmas trees, and there were even a few tears as patients hummed along to their favorite hymns. The carolers presented patients with candy cane pins made by first-graders at Avalon Elementary School in the Northgate School District.

When Chuck Boyle traveled to Pittsburgh from Mechanicsburg to visit family earlier this month, he didn't expect to land in the intensive care unit, and he surely never expected a bedside concert. But even the tubes snaking from his nose couldn't keep Mr. Boyle from smiling when the singers honored his request for "Silent Night."

"I think they were great," he said. "I give them a 10."

Mr. Bergfelt asked patients if they had served in the armed forces. Veterans were treated to the Army anthem, "The Caissons Go Rolling Along;" "The Air Force Song;" "Anchors Aweigh;" or "The Marines Hymn."

Traditional holiday offerings ranged from the spiritual "O Holy Night," to the silly, "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" and everything in between, such as "White Christmas," "Silver Bells" and "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree."

The tour culminated in a trip to the employee cafeteria for the hospital's annual basket raffle, which raised $5,173 for North Hills Community Outreach, North Boroughs YMCA Scholarship Fund and Hair Peace Charities, a nonprofit organization that helps women being treated for cancer purchase wigs.

Because Silver Sneakers members sing in various church choirs, they don't practice together. "We just show up," said Judy Szymborski, of Avalon. Mr. Bergfelt keeps the singers on key, even though he broke into laughter occasionally as he strained to hit very high notes.

Group member Peggy Funk, of Bellevue, stands just shy of 5 feet and wore a leather strap over her shoulder fitted with large bells, which she was supposed to shake at strategic points during the songs, but she said she is not the group's official jingle bell player. "Obviously not, because I can't remember when to play them," she said, laughing. "I just got them handed to me today."

Christmas came a bit early for Barbara Augustine, of Tionesta, Forest County, who was visiting her husband recovering from heart surgery. "Today was the first day he walked around the nurses' station," she said. Mrs. Augustine heard the carolers singing in another doorway and joined them to sing "O Holy Night," while Sister Regina Wilson gently placed her arm around Mrs. Augustine's shoulders.

Sister Regina, a nun from Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish, was making her debut with the group. She came "out of a desire to participate in the season of giving, and bring joy to others, which we did."

Pat Mogus, of Avalon, said singing with the Silver Sneakers fulfills a wish for her. She recently retired, having worked for U.S. Steel and for the Pittsburgh Opera's accounting department, "but I always wanted to be a singer," she said.

She finally got her wish, first by joining the OASIS chorus at Macy's five years ago and then Silver Sneakers. "Any chance I get to sing, I'll do it," she said, beaming.

Other Silver Sneakers members present at the hospital were Sally Malenky and Therese Yates, both of Avalon.

The music and singing "is as good a medicine as any the doctors and nurses can give," said Suburban social worker Janice Johns-Engelman, of the North Side. "It has an uplifting and healthy effect, a joyous effect, on the patients' spirits."

Freelance writer Jennifer Kissel can be reached in care of suburbanliving@post-gazette.com .


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