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Pennies, higher-denomination coins benefit Montour Trail
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Although the annual event is called Pennies for the Trail, plenty of silver-colored coins join the copper ones in donations toward keeping the Montour Trail maintained.

The Oct. 3 collection day in Peters Township was full of examples along the lines of the largess of Mike and Marilyn McMurray, who brought a takeout container full of change on their latest visit to the trail.

“Since COVID hit, I’ve been coming here almost daily to either walk or bike,” Marilyn said. “It’s a great use of resources, and it’s kept up well. So whatever we can do to help keep it going, we love it.”

The McMurrays made their donation at the Brush Run trailhead, where volunteers were present to provide information about the trail and offer bottled beverages to keep everyone hydrated.

One of the volunteers, Tony Knaus, has owned adjacent property since the early 1980s.

“This was a railroad then, and now it’s a trail,” he said. “And as far as I’m concerned, trails are good neighbors.”

The Montour Trail extends from Coraopolis to Clairton through a series of municipalities in Allegheny and Washington counties. Maintaining the recreational path is the nonprofit Montour Trail Council, a nonprofit network that includes a governing board, members, friends groups and donors, with volunteers contributing more than 20,000 man-hours each year.

A portion in Peters called the Arrowhead Trail, owned and maintained by the township, was built starting in 1985. The Montour Trail Council’s founding was four years later, and the first section of the new trail opened in 1992.

Eventually, a spur of the trail from Peters Township into Bethel Park was developed, now including a bridge over Clifton Road.

Between 2000-18, Montour Trail Council built 19 bridges for nearly $20 million. Funding comes from members and donations, along with private and government grants.

Today, more than 400,000 people use the Montour Trail each year, according to its website, and many of them venture onto connecting paths such as the Panhandle Trail, which extends into West Virginia, and the Great Allegheny Passage, a system that connects Pittsburgh with Washington, D.C.

“They’re easy to maintain. A lot of people get a chance to use them. And it gets the kids off the road,” Knaus said, citing safety concerns for young bicyclists considering the increased amount of local vehicular traffic.

Helping him attend to a Pennies for the Trail collection point was Washington resident Bud Halpin.

“A lot of people are friendly and tell us they enjoy the trail, how clean it is,” he said. “It’s always well-maintained, and they appreciate all the efforts that the volunteers do.”

As for his own volunteerism, Halpin said he was “embarassed” into it.

“I was riding one day and caught up with someone who was active in the trail, and he says, ‘You know, if you’re going to use it, you should help work it,’” he said.

Some 13 years later, that’s exactly what he continues to do.

Other volunteers at the Brush Run site included Julie Hahn-Miller and daughter Lauren Miller, a Peters Township High School sophomore who told about how she initially became involved.

“My mom was basically like, ‘Lauren, we’re doing this! Get out here. We’re going to go cut down a tree.’ And I was like, ‘OK,’” she said. “But I kept coming back, because I thought it was really cool and fun, and also everyone here is really nice.”

Her mother expressed similar sentiments.

“It’s been a great experience for us,” Julie said. “We’ve met wonderful people. And I had no idea until I was here for a Penny Day that volunteers maintain all of this.”

While the labor comes at no charge, money is needed for purchasing the likes of crushed limestone, fuel for mowers, equipment and maintenance, paint, fencing materials, trail signs and other needs.

For more information about the Montour Trail, visit montourtrail.org.

Blood drive scheduled to thank donors who helped save Peters Township girl’s life
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Prior to the arrival of their third child, Nancy and Joe Tray of Peters Township had no reason to expect complications during Maddalena’s delivery.

Then came an emergency trip from where she was born to the neonatal intensive care unit at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

“One of the nurses who had been there for 20 years told my husband, ‘I’ve never seen a baby get so much blood at one time,’” her mother recalled.

Maddalena had been diagnosed with a biochemical abnormality called metabolic acidosis.

“That means she had too much lactic acid in her body, which can be caused by prolonged oxygen deprivation,” Nancy said. “For some reason she wasn’t getting the oxygen, which, obviously, your vital organs need, and they were starting to shut down.

“But we had no idea why, and to this day have no idea why or what happened.”

She said Maddalena is in relatively good shape as she approaches her fourth birthday in February.

“Of all the things that she went through when she was born, this is probably one of the best-case scenarios for us,” she said. “We just feel blessed and thankful that she’s doing as well as she is today.”

To help show their gratitude toward some of the people who helped make that possible, the Trays have been hosting annual replenishment blood drives in Maddalena’s honor. The 2020 drive is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Nov. 6 at Peters Township Public Library, 616 E. McMurray Road.

“I was not a consistent blood donor prior to this, because I didn’t really realize the value,” Nancy said. “I’m just trying to educate myself and others on the importance, because honestly, she wouldn’t be alive if she didn’t have that blood that night.”

Her two older daughters had been born without any issues, and throughout her pregnancy with Maddalena, everything checked out well.

“But as soon as she was born, instead of me being able to hold her, they kind of took her right away,” Nancy recalled. “My husband had called our priest at the time, because we didn’t know what was going to happen. It didn’t look good at all.”

Nancy gives particular credit to four NICU nurses at Children’s for saving her daughter’s life, and Maddalena remained in the hospital for 40 days, receiving more than 40 blood products during her stay.

“She wouldn’t clot really well, so she needed a lot of platelets, for example,” her mother said.

Because she was suspected to have damage to major organs, Maddalena underwent a freezing protocol as a protective measure. Subsequent tests of her brain function came back with welcomed results, to say the least.

“The doctors were even flabbergasted by it,” Nancy said.

She added, though, that some other organs haven’t fared as well.

“We just had our appointment recently with the nephrologist, and he said, ‘We can’t tell you when, but at some point, her kidney function will decline, and she will need a kidney transplant,” Nancy said.

Continued testing should indicate at what point that is likely to occur. In the meantime, Maddalena’s mother keeps spreading the word about the importance of giving blood.

“I always say, donating is really a simple act of kindness with such an enormous impact,” Nancy said. “I feel that says it all, right there.”

To make an appointment to donate on Nov. 6, visit vitalant.org and click the “Log In” button. On the new window, choose “Donor Login” or “New Donor” and search with group code C594. Registration also can be made by calling 412-209-7000.

Doctors from Mayo Clinic, St. Clair Hospital address multiple facets of COVID-19
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For at least three-quarters of a century, nothing has dominated the lives of Americans as pervasively as the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Most know it better as COVID-19, and hear about it constantly. But the information tends to come at at a dizzying pace, with facts often mixing with opinion, conjecture and downright falsehoods.

For those confused over the vast amount of information surrounding the virus, perhaps professionals who have spent the past several months fighting the coronavirus firsthand can make matters clearer.

A recent virtual presentation, dubbed “The Frontline. Online,” featured doctors from the Mayo Clinic and one of its care network members, St. Clair Hospital in Mt. Lebanon and Scott Township, speaking about various facets of COVID-19 and answered questions from the public that had been submitted beforehand.

Transmission and safety

One of the queries addressed a contentious point head-on.

“Does wearing a mask really defend against getting the virus?”

Dr. Stephen Colodny, St. Clair’s chief of infectious disease, said COVID-19 primarily is transmitted from person to person, with “the most efficient method” being the spread of droplets that are expelled by activities such as breathing or talking, and in larger amounts, sneezing, coughing or singing.

“These droplets are fairly heavy, and they generally tend to fall to the ground within about six feet, and hence that’s our recommendation for social distancing,” he said.

In that context, covering the face adds a measure of protection, likely for everyone involved.

“There is starting to be some body of evidence that suggests that wearing a mask may prevent you from getting the virus from others, or in the event that you do become infected that you may have a less severe clinical illness,” Colodny said.

“So I still urge people to wear masks when they’re within six feet of others, particularly indoors.”

He confirmed transmission also is possible through contact with contaminated surfaces.

“It’s been shown in the lab that the virus can survive on various surfaces for some periods of time, but in general, they don’t survive for a really long period of time,” he said. “Things like ultraviolet light, heat or humidity may kill virus particles, and most importantly, 60% or greater alcohol kills viruses, usually within a minute.”

To be on the safe side, he advises proper hygiene.

“If you wash your hands frequently, especially after you’ve touched common surfaces – think of things such as doorknobs or light switches – it will help in preventing you from self-contaminating,” he said.

Staying safe during the pandemic extends to considerations beyond precautions against COVID-19, according to Dr. John Sullivan, senior vice president and chief medical officer at St. Clair.

The hospital continues to follow protocols adopted by the Mayo Clinic, from enhanced cleaning to taking temperatures of people entering the building, and has resumed elective procedures following their temporary suspension, with no viral transmissions observed.

“We are concerned, however, that the perceptions of risk in seeking care are still limiting how some people are accessing their routine care,” Sullivan said. “Early on, we even saw examples where people with symptoms of a stroke or heart attack delayed seeking their care. And as we all know, that can be very consequential. Delay in care in those settings, even by minutes and certainly by hours, can lead to worsened outcomes.”

A similar scenario applies to procedures such as colonoscopies and mammograms.

“In almost all cancer diagnoses, early detection is often associated with improved survival,” Sullivan said. “Some parts of the country have seen the decrease in breast cancer screening by almost 50%.”

And so his recommendation is to keep up with basic health maintenance.

“If you have any questions about this, contact your primary care physician to help guide the decisions,” he said. “Many of them are conducting visits via telemedicine to help you as a starting place.”

Treatment and vaccines

Since COVID-19 started wreaking havoc globally, more than 7.5 million cases had been confirmed in the United States as of Oct. 6, including 169,000-plus in Pennsylvania.

How patients are treated varies as the disease progresses, according to Dr. Stacey Rizza, Mayo Clinic executive medical director for international academic affairs. In the early stages, the common practice is to use antiviral medications in attempts to prevent the virus from replicating.

“Then after about a week, people either get better or they get what we call an immune response that’s overreactive,” Rizza said. “It’s essentially the person’s immune system reacting dramatically to the virus, itself. And that’s what causes people to become severely ill.”

At that point, she said, treatment tends toward “medications that block the immune system or change how the immune system is reacting to the virus.”

Overall, a major caveat is practically all of the drugs that could turn out to be effective in battling COVID-19 are in various stages of development and testing.

“Thus far, we really only have one therapeutic that has been proven to be efficacious in the appropriate randomized control trials, and that’s the antiviral medicine called Remdesivir,” Rizza said. It’s been reviewed by the FDA and given what we call emergency use authorization. We know that using it a little bit earlier, during that viral replication phase, seems to be where we see a lot of evidence that it works well.”

The use of steroids also has been the subject of study, although no control trials have been completed.

“But there is very strong evidence around them that keep showing that they do have some effect at protecting patients who are severely ill,” Rizza said.

“So they work more in that second phase, when the body’s immune system is overreacting and steroids are blocking that immune response.”

Perhaps of more interest to Americans in general is the progress of potential COVID-19 vaccines.

Dr. Andrew Badley, who chairs Mayo’s molecular medicine department, said testing is taking place on about 180 potential vaccines.

“What they’re intended to do is determine if it is safe, and if people who get the vaccine develop an immune response,” he said. “The hope is that the fact that you generate an immune response will translate into reducing the incidence of the disease or reducing the severity of the disease. But today, that is unknown.”

Prior to a vaccine’s approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, some people may want to consider participating in trials.

“At that point, it will be experimental, and you’ll either get the vaccine or a placebo, Badley said, advising those who opt in to, “talk to the investigators. Very much learn about the potential side effects. And then you, as an individual, have to make a cost-benefit decision as to, do the risks outweigh the benefits?”

Approval of a vaccine is unlikely to occur before mid-2021, Badley said.

“When we’re in that situation, much more will be known about the vaccine,” he said, “and so you’ll be able to have a much more detailed discussion with your healthcare provider.”

Families and children

COVID-19 has prompted numerous discussions between concerned parents and Dr. Ruth Christoforetti, a family medicine and primary care physician affiliated with St. Clair Hospital.

And as the summer progressed, a primary topic was education.

“It’s been very challenging to make decisions about sending children to school in person versus keeping them at home as virtual learners, and neither really seems like an ideal situation for the majority of our children and our families,” said Christoforetti, a mother of three. “I think it is very important to keep in mind that there is no right or wrong decision, and each family situation is unique.”

She acknowledged attending school in an environment where other people are present “does increase the risk of transmission.”

“If the school is following safety precautions – such as spacing desks apart, requiring students to wear masks and frequently wash their hands, making sure that there’s adequate ventilation in the school, maybe having the kids spend some time outdoors – those things will help to reduce the risk,” she said.

“It’s also important to think about the school’s plan for if or when there is a case of COVID-19 within the school, and how they would manage that in order to keep other students and teachers and staff safe.”

Colodny fielded a question about the safety of scholastic athletic events.

“Obviously, it depends on the sport and the proximity of the children to each other,” he said. “It depends upon whether they’re outdoors or indoors, and it depends on the risk to other family members.”

He gave a reminder the academic year is relatively new.

“I think that it’s too early to tell whether, in youth sports and high school sports, how much transmission there will be,” Colodny said. “But I would say that running cross country is a whole lot safer than wrestling.”

Christoforetti provided a reminder of COVID-19’s impact on mental health.

“It’s widely known that there are increased rates of depression and anxiety during times of crisis, and this pandemic has been no different,” she said. “In these challenging times with tremendous stress, it’s important that we be kind to each other. If we notice a loved one is struggling, perhaps from depression or anxiety, that we encourage them to reach out for support from family and friends, as well as to seek professional help when needed.”