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Families bid emotional goodbye to old Children’s Memorial

On top floor parking garage outside old Children’s Memorial Hospital Fullert special ceremony was held memory  families who lost

On the top floor of a parking garage outside the old Children’s Memorial Hospital on Fullerton, a special ceremony was held in memory of families who lost children or siblings at the hospital over the past 100 years. Maria Valencia (on right) bows her head as she remembers her daughter, Maria Valencia. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: July 7, 2012 8:19AM

After her 16-year-old daughter Maria’s heart stopped on Jan. 5, Olga Valencia went back to Children’s Memorial Hospital four times. She wandered the lobby trying to imagine that Maria was alive still, fighting for her life somewhere upstairs.

From the time Maria was 6 months old, when she began her struggle with heart and lung problems and suffered her first convulsions, the girl spent far more time at the hospital in Lincoln Park than in her family’s Southwest Side home.

“This was her home, this hospital,” Olga Valencia said in Spanish, crying. “Now that the hospital is being knocked down, it’s like losing her again. It will be very tough.”

On Saturday, the Lincoln Park hospital will move to a new $855 million campus at 225 E. Chicago. The hospital will celebrate its grand opening Monday, but already, doctors have been seeing children at the new site on an outpatient basis. Admissions will begin Saturday, the same day every patient in the old site is moved to Streeterville.

To cushion the psychic blow of the old building’s loss, the hospital staff organized a “closing reception for bereaved families” on Sunday afternoon on the rooftop of the parking deck overlooking the hospital.

In T-shirts showing Maria Valencia in her 15th birthday party dress, her mom, dad and three siblings joined hundreds of other family members of those who died young despite the best efforts of the hospital’s medical staff.

Many dabbed tissues against their eyes and hugged one another after speaking the names of their loves ones at once. “The power of saying your child’s name connects you to their lives,” said Kristin James, coordinator of the hospital’s Heartlight bereavement program.

Hospital chaplain Jim Manzardo led the dedication of a red jewel crabapple tree that will be planted in Julia Porter Park, close to where the hospital has operated for 130 years. The tree is intended to give grieving families a new place to visit and “celebrates all of the children cared for at the hospital since 1882,” according to the program for Sunday’s ceremony.

Family members of children who died under the hospital’s care wrote the names of the children on tags they hung from the sapling’s branches.

They also released bubbles that drifted across the rooftop toward the downtown skyline at the behest of Michelle Mascaro, manager of Kohl’s House, where families of transplant patients often stay.

“Now it is time to send off the building,” Mascaro told the family members. “This place is a reminder of memory, but it is not the memory … The memory of your child is with you, wherever you are.”

Michelle Archambeau of Barrington came to the ceremony with a framed photograph of her son Joshua, who died in 2010 of a rare genetic disorder. He was 17 months old, and treatment costs had reached $9 million, his mother said.

“They did an awesome job trying to help him. It was definitely the people here who made it special, because the building was not much,” she said. “We will never forget the people who helped us or the families we met who were going through the same thing.”

“The brick and mortar did not make that hospital,” said John Helminski of Arlington Heights, whose son Jeffrey was treated at Children’s for a brain tumor and died in 2002. “The people did.”

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