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Penguins visit sick kids at Lurie Children’s Hospital

Magellanic penguins visited children Thursday afternoLurie Children's Hospital Chicago. The Shedd Aquarium provided 4 penguins as part live demonstratifor hospital

Magellanic penguins visited children Thursday afternoon at Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago. The Shedd Aquarium provided 4 penguins as part of a live demonstration for the hospital children to enjoy in person as well as on closed circuit television in their rooms for those who couldn't make the live performance. | Michael R. Schmidt-For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 17, 2013 8:25AM

Like anyone visiting a hospital for the first time, Mercedes, Iris, Olivia and Sparrow looked a little anxious Thursday — to judge from the way their heads twitched from side to side at the slightest noise.

Or maybe it was just penguins being penguins. Or the pressure of being center stage at the Family Life Center at Ann & Robert Lurie Children’s Hospital.

Dozens of sick kids, their parents, siblings and nurses crowded around the four Magellanic penguins paying a visit from Shedd Aquarium on Thursday as part of a program to let kids be kids — and not patients — for an hour or so.

“It’s pretty cool,” said Haley Erlandson, 8, who just recently had a kidney transplant.

For Haley, seeing penguins gobble down stinky fish and waddle inside a little pen offered a welcome break from TV, puzzles and coloring books in her room.

“She’s been in [the hospital] more than she’s been out in the last 4 1/2 years,” said Haley’s grandmother, Arlene Burke.

Thursday’s event — part of “Shedd Week” — was broadcast live on the hospital’s Skylight TV network. Those kids too sick to come to the family center could watch the event on TV monitors in their rooms, and they could call in questions to the animal handlers from Shedd.

One caller wanted to know how to tell the difference between a male and female penguin. Very difficult, without a blood test or the arrival of a penguin egg, explained Lana Vanagasem, Shedd’s manager of animal care and training for penguins and sea otters.

Another patient wanted to know why penguins can’t fly. Their bones are too heavy, Vanagasem said.

Riverwoods philanthropist Harvey L. Miller, who is funding the collaboration between Shedd and Lurie, said he was delighted with the event, which brings small bamboo sharks to the hospital Friday.

“My major thought was they’re not sick while they’re watching this show,” Miller said. “Their minds are elsewhere. They’re being entertained. They’re learning something.”

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