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Children’s Memorial move over; staff, families say goodbyes

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Updated: July 11, 2012 10:28AM

One by one, Chicago’s sickest kids — tots awaiting heart transplants, recovering from life-saving surgery and recuperating from cancer treatment — were shuttled in a slow, meticulous procession from Children’s Memorial Hospital to a new place where they might find healing.

About 6 a.m. on Saturday, Emiliano Vazquez — just 5 months old — made the first ambulance ride to the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital. The majestic Streeterville high-rise has state-of-the art medical equipment, private patient rooms and cozy family waiting rooms and public spaces that feel like a museum or a park or a playground. There’s even an outdoor garden on the 11th floor named after former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s late son Kevin, who died at age 2 of complications of spina bifida in 1981.

By 8 p.m. all 126 kids were safely in their new rooms. The great move, which took six years of planning and was staffed by 4,000 workers, doctors and volunteers, was a bustling, well-choreographed affair sharply focused on keeping ailing patients safe and their parents calm — or at least as calm as parents with sick children can be.

Trouble in the NICU

About 9:45 a.m., blaring alarms signaled trouble in the neonatal intensive care unit at Children’s Memorial Hospital on Saturday morning as Gianna Ramian — just one month and one day old — turned “blue, like a blueberry.”

The baby’s heart rate and oxygen levels had dipped to dangerous levels.

Her mother, Jill Ramian of Valparaiso, Ind., watched as nurses increased the oxygen and gently jostled awake “Gia” — that’s what everyone calls her.

“They almost had to bag her before we left,” the baby’s mother, Jill Ramian, said. “She’s sleeping and her brain forgets that she needs to breathe. It happens.”

But by 10:30 a.m., Gia’s condition was stable for the scheduled time for the 3.5-mile ambulance ride to her room on the 14th floor of the new hospital.

Gia, a doctor, two EMTs and nurses from the neonatal intensive care unit, with mom riding shotgun in the ambulance, headed east toward the lake on Fullerton, which had been closed to traffic for the move. The ambulance was quiet while Gia slept. The trip took about 15 minutes.

“It was such a smooth ride,” Jill Ramian said.

When they arrived at Lurie, the staff quickly took Gia to a private room with a small incubator crib, leather recliner and a view of boats bobbing in Lake Michigan. Nurses asked Jill and her husband, Mike Ramian, to leave for a bit while they got Gia settled.

They went to nearby Lou Malnati’s for pizza, tried to make each other laugh a bit and tried not to worry while their daughter — born two months early and in need of surgery to attach her esophagus to her stomach — was in good hands.

After lunch, Jill Ramian ran her fingers through her daughter’s thick black hair, hoping that her baby girl would wake up to show off her deep blue eyes. Mom pulled back the hospital blanket to show off Gia’s “party dress,” a bright pink butterfly top and colorful skirt.

Gia and her folks are expected to spend a few more months at Lurie, which Jill said is a much more comfortable place than the intensive care unit at Children’s Memorial — a giant room filled with critically ill babies in each corner. She raved that the new hospital digs even have a private breast pump she can use to continue to stockpile milk for Gia once she gets through a few more surgeries.

Doctors expect Gia to recover.

Her parents have already thought about that day, years from now, when they’ll look back fondly on Gia’s first lakefront high-rise apartment of sorts.

“It’s neat to think that she’s the first one to be in this room,” Jill said. “I’ve already thought about one day walking with her on the beach and strolling by here and telling her, ‘This is where you lived for the first couple months of your life.’”

Mementoes in high demand

Throughout the day, memento seekers at the old hospital were at work.

Jodi Grzywa, who’s been a periodic regular at the hospital since birth to have fluid drained from her brain, took her room number, while her mother took a “neurosurgery” sign as a souvenir.

Resident physician Christine Higham said “a stem cell patient grabbed the No. 4 sign off the wall. . . . He’d spent a lot of time on that floor.”

Staff, too, took their share of souvenirs.

One mother of a patient said she saw a nurse ask a tall doctor to remove a sign hanging from the ceiling that was out of her reach.

“The building is eventually going to be demolished and people have spent so much time here . . . and it’s not like they’re taking computers,” said the woman, who asked not to be named.

Years in the making

It took about two years for hospital administrators to put together the elaborate staging plan for moving kids to the new hospital. They ranked patients by seven categories based on their condition. And worked to reduce the hospital census this week by asking doctors not to schedule elective surgeries until Monday when the new campus and emergency room were up and running. Kids with cancer had chemotherapy treatment scheduled earlier in the week rather than on the weekend, too.

By about 1 p.m., all patients in regular rooms at Children’s Memorial had been moved. And by 4 p.m., only 13 patients — the sickest of the 126 — were waiting to be moved. Each of those remaining trips could take up to two hours, said Michelle Stephenson, who headed up “incident command.”

“Those are patients we transfer with a physician from ICU with a team of critical care nurses and respiratory therapists, some of them will also travel with their surgeon,” Stephenson said. One of those patients was a child who had a heart transplant just two days ago, Stephenson said.

Planning paid off

Tim Grobart, 5, arrived at Lurie just after lunchtime. He’s waiting for a heart transplant, himself. His room on the Peter and the Wolf-themed 15th Floor has a door that closes — a stark contrast from the curtained off area that Tim was staying in back at Children’s Memorial.

“The change in Tim’s attitude is night-and-day,” his father, Jeff Grobart, said. “We’re in a room with an interactive TV that not only shows TV, but streams movies and lets you play games. It’s a kid’s dream.”

Door-to-door, Tim’s trip took about 40 minutes.

“Relatively painless,” Jeff Grobart said. “All that planning they did really paid off.”

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