A Special Place for Play and Healing
The Michael S. DeLarco Foundation playroom at Ascension Saint Alexius Women and Children's Hospital reopened in September after being closed for more than two years due to the pandemic.
On September 27, nearly every bed on the pediatric unit was filled as Ascension Saint Alexius Women and Children’s Hospital, like so many other hospitals throughout the greater Chicago area, responded to a surge in pediatric hospitalizations due to severe respiratory illnesses. And yet a couple of children wearing hospital gowns and masks were well enough to leave their rooms and their anxieties behind to join a small gathering of hospital staff and community members at a safe distance for the reopening of the Michael S. DeLarco Foundation playroom.
More than two-and-a-half years had passed since the playroom closed abruptly in March 2020 due to the global pandemic. When it closed, children on the hospital’s pediatric unit lost the freedom to roam down the hall to the playroom to break the monotony of their hospital stay, to distract themselves from their pains and worries, to do a craft, paint a picture or read a book.
“How do you make a space like a hospital that’s unpredictable and unfamiliar — how do you make it predictable and familiar for kids?” asked Katie Hammerberg, certified child life specialist. “Play is a child’s way of exploring their environment. It should be a necessity, and not an option.”
Years ago, understanding that necessity, the Michael S. DeLarco Foundation dedicated the playroom to honor Michael DeLarco’s loving memory. On September 27, Michaels’ mother, Linda DeLarco, joined patients and hospital staff to reopen the playroom and restore some familiar and predictable things to the hospital setting — and some of the joy that had been lost over the preceding two-and-a-half years.
Child life supports thousands of children each year
Each year thousands of children receive care at Ascension Saint Alexius Women and Children’s Hospital in Hoffman Estates. The hospital’s child life team reaches more than 7,400 children and adolescents. In addition to working with patients, the child life team works with parents and siblings.
“Developmentally, we’re looking at each child or adolescent and trying to meet their needs while helping the nursing team focus on providing the best medical care possible,” said Hammerberg. “When there is familiarity within the hospital setting, it makes parents feel better. It helps the hospital team deliver great care. It makes kids and their families more content and compliant.”
Making families more comfortable reduces stress and improves patient satisfaction and health outcomes. Patients and their families gain a better understanding of what is happening, which results in better physical recoveries. For example, thanks to the child life team, children have been able to undergo CT scans without sedation, which leads to shorter, less risky procedures that require fewer clinical staff members. Although the care that child life specialists provide is considered essential by the American Academy of Pediatrics, it is not covered by Medicaid or private insurance. Philanthropy makes this extra special care possible.
Taking care of children's emotional needs
Despite the challenges the pandemic caused, philanthropic support of the hospital’s child life team enabled them to continue to find creative ways to bring play, stress relief and comfort to hospitalized children and their families. Although the playroom and teen lounge were closed for much of the pandemic, child life team members visited patients in their rooms when possible. When the culinary program they hoped to roll out in 2020 thanks to a donated mobile kitchen cart had to be put on hold, they collaborated with the dietitian and media services to host culinary medicine through the hospital’s closed-circuit TV network. Currently they are doing monthly programming in the waiting area, where there is enough space to spread out up to five patients and a parent at a time.
“It brings comfort for the families knowing that their child’s needs are being met,” said Hammerberg. “It’s not just hospital staff coming in to take care of the medical needs but they’re also taking care of the emotional needs, the psychological needs. Some of the other parts of being a human.”
Donors make the difference
Being there to reopen the playroom on September 27 was important to the child life team and to Linda DeLarco. A dietitian rolled out the mobile kitchen cart and led masked, safely distanced patients through a “5-A-Day” smoothie recipe, and patients were able to mix fruits and vegetables in a mason jar to make a smoothie.
“Yesterday (September 27) was just amazing and my heart is filled with so much happiness and appreciation,” Linda DeLarco wrote in an email to the hospital team after the reopening. “It felt really great to walk through those doors again with bags of crafts and supplies for the kids while seeing many familiar faces.”
As the playroom reopened, so did another opportunity to create a more predictable and familiar hospital experience for the kids and families served there. A lot had changed since the last time patients had set foot in the playroom in 2020. But the dedication of the child life and hospital teams remained constant. They could not have continued to provide compassionate care to the children and families they serve without the steadfast and generous support of Ascension Illinois Foundation donors, like the Michael S. DeLarco Foundation.
Now that the playroom is open it is bringing smiles to kids’ faces again. Kids in the hospital can sign up for a time slot to visit. It will be cleaned after each use. And, through the Michael S. DeLarco Foundation’s generosity and the incredible support of the community of friends and family who love them and Michael, everyone who crosses that playroom threshold will see Michael’s name — another way to keep his loving memory alive.
Sometimes loss can lead to surprising, and even incredibly beautiful, things.