Hannah Storm: Kissed By Angels

Hannah Storm: Kissed By Angels

An award-winning newscaster and sportscaster for over 25 years, Hannah Storm’s radiant smile has been seen by millions. Working at CBS News and NBC Sports, Storm has covered everything from the Olympics to the Iraq War, and from Major League Baseball to the Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Currently a host for ESPN’s SportsCenter, Storm was born with a port wine stain under her left eye, which her mom told her was the special spot where she was “kissed by angels.” Most people with facial birthmarks do not typically choose careers in the public eye. Former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev is one of a handful of other high-profile people with a port wine stain. Storm, whose enthusiastic energy and positive outlook can make anyone feel blessed, says she feels grateful to have the opportunity to help change both societal and individual beliefs and patterns.

After being contacted by the Sturge-Weber Foundation to help bring awareness to port wine birthmarks and other related conditions, Storm readily agreed. In 2004, as anchor for CBS’ The Early Show, Storm took her makeup off on camera, to educate the public about the severity of these birthmarks, the treatments that are available, and to understand the heartache that those born with these conditions and their families face.

In 2008, Storm founded The Hannah Storm Foundation to raise awareness and provide surgical treatment for children suffering from debilitating and disfiguring vascular birthmarks.

Storm has won numerous awards and honors including the 2004 American Women in Radio and Television Gracie Award for Outstanding Anchor for News as well as another Gracie won previously for her work in sports. She is the author of two books, Go Girl!: Raising Healthy, Confident and Successful Daughters through Sports and Notre Dame Inspirations. The latter helps fund the Hannah Storm Journalism Scholarship at her alma mater, the University of Notre Dame. Storm is on the board of several charitable organizations and her foundation also provides educational scholarships locally for the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Positive Impact Magazine spoke with Storm about her life and the foundation she began. With a heart of gold, she has pledged herself to making a difference in the lives of others who might need a little (or big) boost in their challenges. During our interview, it became obvious that Storm was not simply kissed by the angels—she truly is an angel herself!

PIM: I loved what you said about your port wine stain also being a blessing; you know you are loved and it has nothing to do with how you look.

Storm: Yeah. I really believe that. When parents tell their kids, ‘That’s where the angels kissed you when you were born’—that is such a wonderful way to look at it. In a way, that’s true, because you do have that mark. And listen, anytime something is on your face, or there is any deformation, that’s the first thing people see and it’s not easy. People are going to look at you, do a double take, and maybe make a rude comment like ‘Who hit you in the eye?’ or ‘What happened to your face?’ I still get comments as an adult on a fairly frequent basis.

People don’t have any trepidation about remarking about a baby. It’s hard for parents to hear things like ‘Why’d you leave your baby out in the sun?’ or ‘What did you do to your baby?’ The implication is that you somehow hit your baby. There’s a lot of ignorance about how serious and deadly birthmarks can be. There’s still a lot of work to be done with education and funding surgeries, because the insurance companies think it’s just plastic surgery. I do feel really blessed because I was never one to think that I could ever trade in on my looks in any way. I knew that I was very average.

PIM: Hannah, you are drop dead gorgeous!

Storm: I never assumed that or thought of that! I’m just eternally grateful to the ancient Egyptians for inventing make-up. Any kind of cover-up is my best friend. I’ve literally tried every kind of cover-up ever made.

I do feel blessed that I always knew that my parents loved me, and that people loved me for who I was on the inside. It wasn’t because of anything external. I’m in a visual media, yes, but I’ve always had a good inner confidence. I feel like my birthmark had something to do with that.

I feel really blessed that I’m in the public eye, because most people who have birthmarks, aren’t! They don’t naturally go there because of the disfigurement, you don’t think of that as your first career option. So I’m so happy that I’m able to have it and be in the public eye.  It’s a double blessing! It makes me so happy. I feel like god has really blessed me by giving me this—I have a healthy perspective on life, on appearance, and a real reason to use my time and efforts for something that is crying out for it.

PIM: Speaking of crying, I cried the entire time I watched that video on your website of Tingyi, the first baby to have his surgery covered by your foundation! That baby is beautiful!

Storm: I know, isn’t he gorgeous? Tingyi is coming back for three more surgeries, so he will have had nine. His birthmark has really faded. It is so exciting.

PIM: Does the foundation also help adults, too?

Storm: A lot of times adults have a job, so we help patient advocate for them. We help them work with their insurance company so they can get it covered. There are people certainly in their teens and older. I started with Dr. (Milton) Waner when I was working at CBS helping a woman who was in her 60’s receive a bunch of laser surgeries. You can go back and do it at any point in your life.

I still have to stay on top of my own every few years. With women, hormonal changes really affect the birthmarks. The birthmarks are vascular so you have to stay on top of it and you don’t want your birthmark to rupture through the skin. I go in once in a while and knock it back into submission, beat it down.

PIM: How do you do that?

Storm: With the Pulsed Dye Laser (PDL), and the Fraxel. I’ve done it while awake, with no anesthesia. I don’t recommend that, and I don’t think I’ll do that again! That’s scary because the lasers come right at you, and mine is right around my eye. You see the light and then you feel the hit. In that area, I have a lot of pain memory. Most people are asleep so they don’t feel it.

PIM: What was it like to be a 5th grader going through those hospital stays for the treatments?

Storm: My mom was able to stay overnight with me, which was really nice. My mom is really good at making the best of any situation. I remember being in one weekend around Easter, and I remember watching The Ten Commandments on TV.

We moved around a lot, so the difficult thing was I never had just one doctor—I had a series of doctors and I had different kinds of treatment because these lasers that we have today didn’t exist back then. So I had one doctor who gave me a flesh-colored tattoo—of course, it was way too light and didn’t look like flesh at all. I remember series upon series of doctors’ appointments, and it still didn’t go away.

At one point they were going to take a skin graft from my elbow and put it under my eye. And thank God, my mother said ‘I don’t even like the sound of that!’

Then they had hot lasers that left third degree burns. So I had a lot of different treatments from fifth grade up through college. And really none of them ever worked!

So I just blew it off until I was in my early 40’s and I wanted to do a story on it, because I felt like so many kids are born with it. A kid from my hometown went to camp and she had gotten sent back home because she had Mongolian spots on her back (which is pretty common), and they were convinced that her parents were beating her up. I’m like, “this is just absolutely outrageous!” I just wanted to try to bring some awareness to it. So I did a three-part series on CBS with various doctors and make-up artists.

Through this whole process I befriended Dr. Waner and he came to me and said ‘We really need a spokesperson, a celebrity to bring awareness to this. Four thousand kids in this country every year need some kind of specialized treatment. And I was like, ‘Absolutely!’

PIM: Was it hard for you the first time you spoke about having the port wine stain?

Storm: You know, I had never talked about it. I never wanted any kind of special treatment. It’s always frustrating because I work on television. Sure, there have been a lot of times I was very self-conscious about it on camera. Or, a makeup artist didn’t quite cover it. I always have some anxiety when I have a new make-up artist, which is often because I work so many different events. It’s not an easy thing to cover. So now the overriding thing for me is that it’s more important for me to take my makeup off on camera and explain what this is, and have them understand what it’s like to grow up with it—without it being self-promotional.

I took my makeup off on camera and they did close up shots of it, which are on-line. Then I did a series on it that was really well received. I was very happy to be able to do that. I thought, rather than be ashamed of it, which many people are, I realized ‘Wow! I have a real platform for this to help people understand and I’ve really been able to parlay that, and do some real good. Good in terms of surgeries, insurance codes, holding advocacy days for patients and their families, and presenting at the Brookings Institute. So, I’m really happy with what we’ve been able to do, and we have a really good business plan.

PIM: I can’t imagine how you feel to really see the difference that you’re making—literally. How does it feel to help these babies?

Storm: It’s so exciting! I start crying! I am really grateful to the surgeon, Dr. Waner, and that I have this connection with the top surgeon in the world.

He is unreal. Here’s this guy who’ll take his VISA out of his pocket and pay for hotel rooms for his patients—he’s just an incredible man. He has touched kids all over the world. He’s so optimistic and generous and fun loving. He is the epitome of what a truly successful person is. He enjoys life, and he is generous and grateful and talented and smart.

PIM: You’re the perfect team!

Storm: Yeah, we are a great team! I needed that. I needed that legitimate foot in the door in the community. And then I prod him along. We’ve already got some insurance codes changed and that’s a very difficult thing to do. And we’re going to continue to do that. It’s step-by-step and it takes a lot of patience and time. We have Tingyi, and we have a little American girl, and then there’s a little boy from Lithuania. People are finding us from other countries on line.

PIM: It seems like your parents had such a wonderful way of instilling the worth of a human being into you. How did they do that?

Storm: They were so invested in helping me. This was before the internet. My mom wanted me—I was her little girl—to not have to be self-conscious and not to get teased—which is every parent’s worst nightmare. Despite us moving around, she checked out every possible option. She made such an effort! I could see, even as a little kid, my mom was going to go to bat for me! I felt like, well, I’m not going to be held back, I’m not going to be limited, or pout about it! My mom is going full steam ahead! I’m not going to be left behind. It never occurred to me to not do what I wanted to do.

I had this really great forward-thinking mind-set and I still do.

PIM: How can the readers get involved? Can you sponsor an individual?

Storm: We haven’t gotten to that point, but I will say that we’ve thought about that. Our surgeries, at our cost are about $2500-$3000 per surgery. That’s a lot to ask someone to sponsor. We have a crazy low amount of overhead, which is really nice. We are an extremely efficient operation.

There’s so much to be done. Anyone that’s interested can always write to us. The cool thing is that you know your money is going right to surgeries, and we have such a good track record. We’ve had six or seven surgeries and we’re only two years old. We’ve had two advocacy days, we’ve spoken in D.C., we’ve had scholarships—we’re doing really well. We’ve turned out to be international.

PIM: Is it true you and Dr. Waner never turn a child away?

Storm: Yes, and the families have to help us as much as they can. Like if they can get there. The true key when you have a foundation is to narrow your focus. I pay for actual surgeries. My specific foundation is for surgery unless you earmark it for advocacy. I’m not at the present time a research foundation. I’m advocacy, awareness and surgery. That’s what we do. We partner with other charities.

PIM: I’m in awe of what you’ve already done! What are your goals and aspirations for the foundation?

Storm: I want to change the insurance coding. That’s what I really want to do, because that changes the way the insurance companies pay out. That is very fundamental. I want to get to the point that regardless of the economy, that we have a big enough nest egg that we automatically pay off surgeries every year. No matter how much we raise, we get to the point where I have it structured, even if I’ve gone. It may take eight to ten more years. I want more and more people to be educated and to be compassionate and understanding.

PIM: What has been most gratifying for you so far?

Storm: I can honestly say that I think Tingyi’s first day of his first surgery was one of the happiest days of my life! I was so happy. I felt the same way as I did when something amazing with one of my own kids happened. I was so happy and proud.

You know, I prayed about this for so long. It was hard when I first started. Yes, we’re going to have real surgeries with real surgeons. You visualize it in your mind, and you’re thinking it’s taking a long time to get there. And then when it really happens, it’s like whoa, now we’re rolling, and this is what it’s all about and you can’t wait to do it again!

For more information and to see Tingyi’s video, go to www.hannahstormfoundation.org