Siblings find their happy place at Lemieux Center in Children’s Hospital

When Mario and Nathalie Lemieux’s son, Austin, was born, he spent 71 days in the neonatal intensive care unit.

At the time, their two daughters were both under the age of 3. Finding help with childcare was difficult. Nathalie’s family lived in Canada and Mario was playing and traveling with the Penguins. On Mother’s Day, Nathalie only spent 15 minutes with Austin because she didn’t have anyone to care for her daughters.

Unlike most families who go through the trauma of a sick or hospitalized child, Mario and Nathalie were in a position to make a difference for other families going through the same thing. They created the Lemieux Sibling Center at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh for the brothers and sisters of kids who are in the hospital.

Heather Maeding, of Allentown, has spent lots of time at Children’s Hospital with her son, who had a double-lung transplant. She has five other kids and appreciates the resources offered in the Sibling Center.

“It really has helped our other children to have a safe place that’s just special to them,” Heather says. “When you have a chronically ill sibling, the healthy siblings can feel ignored at times. The child who’s going through a health crisis demands a lot of attention. Having a place where his siblings can go and are valued is important. … And it’s also a place to have fun that’s your own place, that’s not your siblings’ hospital floor playroom.”

Playing air hockey under the Stanley Cup is a helpful distraction from worries about an ill sibling.

Staff members are trained to help kids sort through their feelings.

“The siblings are usually the forgotten ones,” says Nancy Angus, executive director of the Mario Lemieux Foundation, which funds the Sibling Center. “The specialists work with the kids: ‘How does this make you feel?’ And they also go over the details of their siblings’ situation.”

Medical procedures are explained to kids to help them understand the medical mysteries that surround them. A doll-sized MRI machine is an example of the cool teaching aids.

On Super Sibs Saturdays, kids might attend a field trip of sorts to other areas of the hospital with the Child Life Therapists.

“It’s where they get to go and visit an area in the hospital where they don’t usually visit, like the operating room—to get to see behind the scenes and see something they’ll hear the parents talking about,” Heather says.

For the most part, the Lemieux Sibling Center is a place to play, relax, and just be a carefree kid for a while.

An imaginative play area for little ones includes a play kitchen and an aquarium. Older kids can play Xbox or air hockey. And there are lots of supplies for arts and crafts projects.

“One of the biggest things, especially for the girls, is making new friends,” says Heather, who points out how many kids are hospitalized for long-term care. Our girls especially love making a special sibling friend. When they’re in school, most have never experienced what they’d experienced.”

To have a friend with that in common makes for a special relationship, she says.

“We’ve come to know the siblings very well,” says Sherry Rectenwald, child life assistant, who works in the center. “We provide them with a positive experience that helps them to enjoy being here, and not being separated and left at home. This way, they can still be a part of what’s going on.”