RIP Children’s Memorial Hospital, 1882-2012

On Saturday, June 9, 2012, Children’s Memorial Hospital will cease to exist.  The end.  No more.

In its place will be the bright and shiny, state-of-the-art Ann & Robert Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.  This is not a bad thing, and in fact, is a great thing that will benefit the children of Chicago and Illinois in countless ways.  And yet, I can’t deny the sadness this brings me.  With ‘Donna’s hospital’ closing, we lose yet another link to our girl.  Indulge me as I say goodbye before I say hello.

Diagnosed at 20 months old and in treatment for the remaining 31 months of her life, Children’s Memorial became a second home to Donna.  Within those walls we heard the catastrophic words, “there is a mass in your daughter’s head.”  Within those walls we cheered as our girl learned to walk a second and third time.  Within those walls we learned how to choose hope, in desperate and dire times.  Within those walls Donna laughed and played and cried and vomited and awoke from sedation more times than I can count, always asking for pancakes and milk.  She slept and woke, ate and drank, struggled and thrived.  She would shyly smile at her doctors and nurses, she would slowly charm her art and music therapists, she would walk lap after lap around 4 West/Oncology, pushing her shopping cart, Mary Tyler Dad and I pushing her IV pole, trying to keep up.

Blessedly, Donna almost always enjoyed her time at Children’s Memorial.  It could be three in the morning, a neutrapenic fever raging inside her, and we would pull under the canopy off of Fullerton Avenue, and Donna would greet the helping hand logo with her own helping hand, stretched high in salute.  What a dear she was.

She made the rounds, you see, spending time on the neurosurgery floor after each of four tumor resections (3W fishbowl, anyone?), inpatient chemo rounds and stem cell transplant on 4,  clinic and Day Hospital for outpatient chemo, ER visits (blessedly always expedited for cancer kids) on 1, procedure suite and recovery and MRI scans on 2, the first alarmingly terrifying days in the PICU after diagnosis, and day after day at the aphaeresis unit, trying to extract the elusive healthy stem cells untouched by her chemo.  Yes, we all made the rounds.

In trying to understand why change — positive change — would make me so sad, I think it is this:  Donna was very alive at Children’s Memorial.  The closing of this structure is another loss, another connection to Donna gone, poof, gone.  Ultimately, of course, the structure is bricks and mortar, I know this, I understand this, but these particular bricks and this particular mortar hold a lifetime of memories for me.  My daughter’s lifetime, to be specific.

And Donna, unfortunately, is not unique.  She is one of not hundreds, but thousands of children that have lived and died within the walls of Children’s Memorial Hospital.  The current building was built in 1960.  It is decidedly past its prime, but at some point, it, too, was state-of-the-art.  And almost certainly, there was a grieving mom somewhere mourning the loss of the buildings that had to be razed for pediatric progress to occur in the late 1950s.  That is life and that is change and that is progress.  Oh, but all that sucks sometimes, doesn’t it?

For me, the land at the crossroads of Fullerton and Lincoln Avenues is sacred ground.  Countless children over one hundred years have died in that space.  Just as sacred are the thousands upon thousands of children whose lives were saved in that space, which is legally nothing more than an address.  The children who died there are not buried there.  There are no laws or regulations limiting the development that will follow, such as would surely be the case for a cemetery.  Calling me a bleeding heart would be accurate.  My heart hurts when I think about that ground, the lives lost and saved, the tears spilled, both of joy and of sorrow.

In the midst of all the celebration, justified as it is, I want to take a moment and think of those children that were treated at Children’s Memorial Hospital over the past century.  I want to remember the parents that stood helplessly by as their child was passed to the hands of the doctors and nurses that could or could not save them.  I want to honor the lives that were lost and the lives that were saved within those walls and on that ground.  For just a moment, I want progress and change to stop, so that we can pay homage to what came before.

So, yes, bricks and mortar, and memories that do not exist within the walls, but within the hearts and minds of doctors and nurses and janitors and moms and dads and security guards and surgeons and clerks and brothers and sisters and patients, so many patients, and all those who walked the hard tiled floors, breathing, hoping, bargaining, praying, pleading, wailing, cheering, despairing.

Before we celebrate the inevitable progress and successes and losses that will come to Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, let us remember and honor what was.  Bricks and mortar, but so much more.  So very much more to so many.  Sacred ground, at the intersection of Lincoln and Fullerton, amidst the bars and the condos and the college kids.

Sacred ground.

CMH Lobby

CMH Front Hall


CMH Clinic

CMH Exam Room

CMH Vitals Room

CMH Purple Elevators

All photos courtesy of Lisa Watters.

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28 Replies to “RIP Children’s Memorial Hospital, 1882-2012”

  1. Oh MTM. I read this in my car this morning, sobbed, and had to stop at Millennium Park on my walk in to gather myself and read again. Such a beautiful tribute to Donna and so many others. I imagined Donna’s laughter when I was there for the Happy Hopeful NYE party, and I saw her big smile. She was there, and she will be in the new hospital as well, even if not physically. Thank you, as always, for making us think, care, and hope.


    1. Thank you, dear Elizabeth. I see Donna reflected in your words and enthusiasm all the time. It is so humbling. Sorry to make your commute a wreck, though. Ugh. Lately I have that effect on people. MTM.


  2. MTM, I hope you were able to attend the very special ceremony held on Sunday to honor the children, like Donna, who were very much alive at CMH furing their treatments and whose memories will always be held dear by the doctors and staff who cared for them. CMH will remain hallowed ground to all its grateful parents and families. Lurie Children’s is a tribute to them all, the children CMH was able to care for but not save, and their families. While I have my own memories of the PICU, the surgical waiting room, the fabulous kinetic sculpture that was the only good thing about Radiology waiting, I can only imagine your bittersweet goodbye to CMH. If it helps, the crazy climbing (?) structure from the lobby has a lovely new home on Chicago Avenue. And, that helping hand that Donna treated like a beacon of hope en route to the ER? Well, it will now light up the night sky for all of Streeterville. I think of it as a hand holding the bright stars of the children who lived, and died, at our beloved CMH.
    Thank you for your words, for sharing your love and your pain.


    1. We opted out of the formal ceremony, though many friends who have lost their children at CMH went and appreciated it. Somehow, it did not feel right to go. Instead, some friends and I made a goodbye trek a few weeks ago to walk the familiar halls where our kids were treated and chat with our favorite docs and nurses. That is where these haunting photos came from, taken by Benny’s Mom.

      I am chuckling over the kinetic sculpture you mention. Donna was always transfixed by that. Our RN was VERY GOOD at snagging us early morning MRIs, as Donna needed to be NPO before scans, and that sculpture captured all our attention so many times.

      And I love the image of the helping hand waving over Streeterville, lit up in the sky. Thank you for that.

      I so appreciate you sharing your own memories. Give that Charlotte a hug. Many thanks for reading and commenting. MTM.


  3. Not having gone through what you and your family experienced, I can only pretend to imagine what your attachment to that building must be like, and the memories it holds for you.
    I stumbled across your blog a few months and read every single entry from beginning to end within a few days. I laughed and cried.
    Donna was an amazing, and very tough little girl.


    1. Thank you, gwennaelle. Donna was a tough little one. When her Doc first met her he called her a “princess.” I had to correct him immediately — Donna was never the princess kind of girl. She was more cupcake or tough cookie — full of spunk and smarts.

      Thank you for keeping me company. MTM.


  4. Your posts always get to the heart of the matter. Your unwavering truth (even when it hurts) is a breath of fresh air. My son, TJ, was diagnosed with retinoblastoma in 2007. We, too, heard the words “your child has cancer” in those halls. We laughed and cried. I am so relieved to know I am not the only one mourning the closing of children’s. I feel almost guilty in the fact that I have my son still with me and still mourn the “changing of the guard.” seems so selfish of me, when others, like yourself are losing a connection to those who aren’t here with their families. Your strength and courage to speak candidly is a true gift! Thank you for the pictures of our old “home away from home!” the pictures of the rooms we didn’t want to be in and now don’t know how we can let them go?! May the families of the new hospital find a quiet comfort we found in the old building. Behind all the new technologies, flat screens and cool decorations – may they find peace! The new facility is beautiful and my son was invited to take part in the ribbon cutting two days ago. While its beautiful, I will always remember following the river to the elevator, the picture of the carnival on the wall in the oncology waiting room and getting hot cakes all day long in the basement with Ronald McDonald! God bless you, your family and (of course) sweet Donna who taught us all to never give up and to smile through the bad times. She was a wise soul taken far too soon!


    1. We always took the railroad tracks, though Donna prefered the river leading to the purple elevators. Thanks for sharing your own memories. And thank you for understanding that while we embrace Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and all the good that will come from it, quite a bit will be lost. It is good to recognize those things. Donna taught me that. MTM.


  5. Our experience with CMH was quite the contrary:
    One night, about 30 years ago, one of our sons — then a two-year-old — had sustained a head injury with bleeding. We rushed him to Children’s Memorial Hospital. But the Emergency staff at CMH refused to treat him — or do anything — till they verified my medical insurance coverage.

    In spite of my protests, the Emergency Supervisor at CMH let him bleed from his skull for twenty minutes. She only allowed the staff to treat him after receiving a verbal OK from Blue Cross!


    1. So very sorry you had a negative experience, Rocky. Sounds awful. It is true that no matter how amazing an institution is, there are always mistakes that are made and improvements that can happen. MTM.


  6. My life was saved at children’s almost 50 years ago now. Born with a horrible on congenital heart problem I was in the ER so very often and in the ICU ( then one of the only Intensive care units in the state) where some of the most wonderful people took care of me. I now have a career in medicine and owe my life and my inspiration to the wonderful people who make their skills available to the most terrifying moments – critical care for children who should not have to endure such things. God bless all those children, families and health care workers who have shared sacred moments in these hallowed halls.


  7. I had the honor of assisting in some of the functions for the opening of the new hospital and had some guest chat with me of how wonderful the new hospital will be but how they also recognized and would miss the old location. Change is hard but, you also say in your story that this change will bring even more wonderful success stories of healing and hope.


  8. I learned how to care for ventilated patients at CMH and remember sitting in the cafeteria, watching all the parents and their children come through and noting the weary but determined look on all of the faces. A month later I took my daughter to a dermatologist and all of a sudden I became one of those parents. With careful monitoring and regular slicing and dicing (her words, not mine) her situation may never become life-threatening skin cancer. I have Dr. Wagner, Nurse Anne, and the staff at CMH to thank for that and I can focus on coping with, God help me, raising a teenager. I don’t think I will ever be able to pass that corner in Lincoln Park with out thinking of those faces, though.


  9. You write what I feel. While Hope’s last days there were not as I would have wished, she was none the less alive. She was still smiling the best she could. She was still giving her brother her ucky face and Dr. Stew the what for. I will miss the place where I last kissed her sweet face and felt her breath on my cheek. It is just hard to know the place where she last lived will be gone. Love you MTM


  10. Thanks for sharing. As a former associate at Hope Children’s Hospital, and now working for Ronald McDonald House Charities, I’ve watched with equal helplessness as parents put their full trust and faith in the physicians and nurses treating their child. This story was such a meaningful way to put some of those emotions and ties to a physical structure into words and I’m sure there are many others feeling the same way.


  11. R.I.P. seems like a particularly tasteless and inappropriate headline about a hospital that treats desperately ill children.


  12. I grew up on fullerton and orchard. The sirens were a normal existence at night. My little sister was treated at CMH in the 60’s, my son in the 70″ and 80’s and 90’s for various things. My first nursing management job was at CMH. It was an honor to have worked in a place where dedicated staff embraced research, technology and worked along side one another. I share my most valuable learning experiences, my childhood memories and the saving of lives that each and ever caregiver has touched. It won’t be the same on fullerton and lincoln, but a new and greater life breathes within the walls of the new facility. With that, comes a dedicated staff that hold you, care and cherish every child. A tearful new beginning… Michelle RN


  13. CMH played a very large factor in my life as well as many lives of other children. Approximately 40 years ago, my sister became very ill and my mom “sensed” that she should bring her to Children’s rather than our neighborhood hospital, despite that Children’s was quite a distance from our home. Thank God she did, because my sister was the very first child in the United States to be diagnosed what is now called Reyes Syndrome. At that time, they did not have any idea of what she “had”, other than her symptoms of getting over chicken pox, vomiting profusely and having a very high fever. She was placed in incubation where several other children came in with the same symptoms. My sister was the only child who survived at that time, even after having been in a coma. It wasn’t until several years later, and many deaths resulting from this, that research and studies came up with a name for this disease. My sister, now a grown woman, has some permanent damage as a result of this disease, but she is alive and able to tell you her own story! CMH will always be in my heart, whether it’s an old delabitated building, or a brand new, state of the art hospital. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. ❤


  14. You summed up my feelings beautifully. I had open heart surgery there when I was 10. That was 40 years ago. I couldn’t really understand why I felt this deep sadness about this progress that will undoubtedly be so good for the hospital. It’s all of the memories contained within those walls. And I remember the inside structure so vividly. Thank you for such a lovely post commemorating this monument.


  15. Thanks for your words MTM. Of the first 4 or 5 memories I can recall of my life, 2-3 of them were formed at CMH. For example, how can I forget my dad (who was a resident at Children’s) taking me by the hand (at about age 3 or so) to get me out of the way of a little bald kid, clutching a teddy-bear, riding in a RadioFlyer Wagon saying “I hate CT, I hate CT”? I can’t say that I’m losing a connection with a daughter in the closing Children’s, but I am losing a small connection to my past. Thanks again.


  16. Our daughter, who died three years ago today from cancer, was also treated at Children’s Memorial. But, our experience was not as positive as yours, unfortunately. But, anyway, our hearts go out to you MTM.

    We know, sadly, the terrible pain you feel at having lost your child to cancer. While I didn’t have a great experience there, I do understand the sadness at the old building coming to a close. Hang in there.


  17. I lived at Children’s Memorial from ages 2-5 while I battled cancer, 18 years ago. This hurts me too, even though I know it’s for the better. Children’s as my home for 3 years, through countless surgeries and therapies. I knew those hallways by heart. I knew where to find the good snacks and the playroom with the best play-doh.

    Thanks for writing this.


  18. My sister is one of the Chaplains at CMH and going through one hell of a week with the big move tomorrow. My thoughts and prayers go out to ALL who are affected by the close of one door and the open of another. I, too, stumbled upon this blog as a random observer, interested in what is going on in my sisters life, curious about the move of CMH, fascinated by the idea that you can move a hospital, which in and of itself is almost a living thing, and curious as a mother about what it must be like to go through worrying about your child in the midst of all of this chaos… wondering about that WHOLE process. I read your entire blog “Donna’s Cancer Story from start to finish in one night. It was the best thing I’ve read in a long time. My battles are different, my challenges are not putting poison in my child hoping to prolong the best life I had ever known. But it isn’t so different, either, that I can’t relate to putting my child above all else and feeling very alone, sometimes, in that endeavor. There needs to be a different word for someone who is your friend/family. Those people God puts in your life just when you need them, that aren’t bound by blood, and yet the bond feels just as strong. I just wanted to say I have enjoyed your blog, thanks and well done. I am inspired by your humor, wisdom, love and hope. cheers.


  19. I have a very good friend who is a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago. He posted this article to his facebook page and I just finished reading it.

    I must say that I was moved by it. I’ve lost several family members over the years to this damnable disease and your post gave me pause to think of them, each one. Thank you.

    I’ve taken the liberty of posting the article to my personal blog, sourced and attributed, of course, but I feel as though those who read my blog might benefit from your words today. My blog is

    Thanks again for sharing this. It is moving.


  20. I too feel a sense of loss with the closing of CMH. DS spent 9wks in the NICU all 2+ lbs of him. He has since has 7 surgeries and countless appointments there. I know those halls and those walls and the place feels like an old friend. As you’ve so eloquently written, a building becomes so much more when it is the home of so much worry, hope, triumph, loss. It becomes a part of us.


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