By: Chris Warren.
It’s normal to have an attachment to a place. It might be a childhood home, a favorite vacation spot, or where you had a first date. Of course, it’s possible for a location to have bad memories, or mixed good and bad. Hospitals, particularly pediatric hospitals, are vessels of hope and despair. There’s very few places where one can witness both the joy of healing & the pain of loss. Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago was such a place. Spoiler alert: This story has a happy ending.
The hospital where I was a really, really sick kid during my junior high school years is at this moment being torn down to make room for “mixed use development,” which is urban planning-speak for “million dollar condos and high end retail”. The Lincoln Park neighborhood where Children’s Memorial Hospital was located has always been upscale and trendy, so I’m sure the new development will be successful.
As disappointed as I am to see a big part of my life fade into history, it’s helpful to remember that Children’s Memorial Hospital was never about a physical building. It was about the “vampire lady” who was so good at what she did that she could draw a blood sample from my arm without even waking me up. It was about the pediatric nurses, a whole army of them, that made me and my parents feel like I was the only patient in the place.
It was about the doctors who tried so hard and didn’t always have good news, but every single patient and parent who came through the doors at Children’s Memorial Hospital knew that it was their best, and in some cases, last, chance. Almost every kid there, including me, was a medical refugee sent to CMH when no one else could figure out what was wrong with us.
There was no better place to be if you were a really, really sick kid. I did not fully understand what was happening to me or how serious my illness I was, but I knew those people were going to put heart & soul into helping me and that I would leave better than I came.
I was quite surprised to discover that the doctor who treated me over thirty five years ago and got to know me like a relative is still out there practicing medicine. I don’t think he would remember me, but I think he would be pleased to know that I went on to earn two college degrees, build a successful career, and a live productive, positive, and happy life.
After I was well enough to go home, I still had to return to Children’s Memorial Hospital every two weeks for follow up care. For almost three years, the trip to Chicago was an all-day affair that meant I missed a day of school. One of the best parts of these road trips was a stop at the John Barleycorn Pub for dinner.
The quirky, eclectic place was less than a block from CMH and had become a traditional stopover. Unfortunately, when the hospital moved out, Barleycorn’s business went with it and they closed. But like the hospital, what made Barleycorn’s meaningful was not the actual place. Barleycorn’s was my gateway back to a normal junior high school kid’s life for another two weeks. It was a small celebration of a good report from the doctor and not being admitted back into the hospital.
Countless sick kids are now healthy adults leading normal lives, not because of the physical building that was Children’s Memorial Hospital, but because of the extraordinary people who ran the place day after day. Even the janitors and the foodservice workers would smile and say hello and wish patients well. From the Director to the doorman, everyone in the entire organization was wholly committed to the wellness of the young patients.
I promised a happy ending, so here it is: The Children’s Memorial Hospital I knew is gone, but a newer, bigger, better version was built at a nearby location and most of the CMH staff transferred over. Now renamed the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital, the legacy of giving sick kids and their families healing and hope will continue for generations.
It’s understandable that a lot of people are crestfallen to see the original CMH unceremoniously go under the wrecking ball, but take heart, my fellow former patients: The kind of care and concern Children’s Memorial Hospital had for us could never be contained inside a building anyway.