First Person: The old Children's

Countless lives were saved there, and memories created

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Some say a building is just a building.

Today, Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC will finalize its move from a labyrinth of old, outdated buildings in Oakland into its new, spectacular Lawrenceville campus whose colorful, technologically advanced buildings are the picture of promise.

We don't know what will become of the Oakland campus that Children's Hospital inhabited for more than a century. But for many of us, the life-altering memories that were created there will live on.

Each of the hospital's old buildings house memories for the hundreds of thousands of children and families who were treated within their walls and the countless staff members whose careers became richer for the experience of working there.

Whether it was stitches or surgery, cardiology or cancer, tonsillectomy or transplantation, parents paced the halls of Children's Hospital as they waited for good news about their children. From the tiny chapel on the second floor of the hospital's DeSoto Wing, weary parents came and went at all hours of the day and night. Some of their prayers were answered; some of them were not.

But the advances made at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh were reason to celebrate. Within the buildings bordered by DeSoto Street and Fifth Avenue, Jonas Salk tested his polio vaccine and Tom Starzl transformed pediatric liver transplantation from experimental surgery into a life-saving technique.

While at Children's, I had the privilege to work in the hospital's Public Relations Department at a time when pediatric transplantation captured media interest from around the world. It was a newer science then, and for many children, a liver, heart, lung or multiple organ transplant was their only hope. News crews from around the region and different parts of the globe waited anxiously in our media room for updates about patients.

Through media reports, Western Pennsylvanians shared in the lives of children such as Stormie Jones, Tabatha Foster, Kimberly Fuller, Sarah Kelton and Ronnie DeSillers. We witnessed their triumphs and tragedies. We mourned their losses then, but today we hold them up as young heroes whose medical journeys have made it possible for others who followed them to live long lives.

While those events captured headlines, countless other innovations happened quietly every day. Many children who are now adults with children and grandchildren of their own owe their lives to the genius and creativity of the doctors and staff at Children's Hospital.

The Oakland facility was also the training ground for thousands of medical practitioners. Clinicians like McCluskey, Gaffney, Oliver and Zuberbuhler taught today's pediatricians how to be extraordinary diagnosticians by paying attention to the small details. Caring was one of those details.

There were light-hearted moments at Children's, too. The gift shop on the second floor was once a snack shop and its milk shakes were legendary. Everyone -- parents with kids in strollers, carts or wheelchairs, physicians, nurses and staff -- lined up at the counter waiting for their orders while sharing stories about the day.

Oftentimes, routine days would become special with a celebrity visit. In the late 1940s, hospital staff managed to bring Roy Rogers and his horse Trigger up a freight elevator so that they could go from bedside to bedside visiting patients. Since then, celebrities from A to Z have left their footprints on hospital floors. From Gene Autry to Pirate Richie Zisk and nearly every letter in between -- Michael Jordan, Jamie Lee Curtis, Steven Spielberg, Tony Danza, Sophia Loren, Mary Lou Retton, Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski and entire teams from the Pirates, Steelers and Penguins -- celebrities visited patient rooms and play rooms to brighten the lives of kids and families.

So, as the region celebrates the opening of a fabulous new hospital to care for its children, many from around the world should pause to reflect on their memories created at the Oakland campus -- the community that Children's called home for nearly 110 years.

The staff and patients will move to a new location and the life of the Oakland campus will cease. But, in writing this, I've come to realize that a building is not just a building.

Sue Cardillo worked at Children's Hospital between 1977 and 1995, the last three years as director of public relations ( ).


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