WHEELING - For many young children, a typical hospital waiting room has all the warmth and comfort of a prison cell, making appointments and visits a trying experience for families with multiple children.
It's an ordeal families of all backgrounds can relate to - but when your husband's name is Mario Lemieux, you're in a position to do something about it.
Nathalie Lemieux, wife of the retired hockey great and current owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, joined Wheeling Hospital officials Tuesday in opening "Austin's Playroom" at the Center for Pediatrics, located on the second floor of the facility's new Tower 5 complex. It is the 27th such room completed by Austin's Playroom Project.
Photos by Scott McCloskey
Nathalie Lemieux, wife of hockey legend Mario Lemieux and chairwoman of Austin’s Playroom Project, speaks with Wheeling Hospital CEO Ron Violi during a ceremony celebrating the opening of a playroom at Wheeling Hospital’s Center for Pediatrics.
Provided through a gift from the Mario Lemieux Foundation and named for the Lemieuxs' now 16-year-old son, the playroom is designed to provide siblings of hospitalized children - and patients who are well enough to use it - a welcoming oasis in an often intimidating environment. Features include an aquarium, sand table, interactive computer kiosk, television, toy train set, board games and a magnetic tic-tac-toe board.
With walls awash in bright orange paint and images of balloons, kites and stars etched into the ceiling, the room is a place where children, if only for a little while, can forget the challenges they and their families are facing.
"Our dream has come true for the 27th time at Wheeling Hospital," said Nathalie Lemieux. "We are so happy to play a part in helping families at its Center for Pediatrics. Our goal is to reach as many people as possible, so fulfilling such dreams will continue."
Her vision for Austin's Playroom Project began in 1996 after the Lemieuxs' third child, Austin, was born nearly three months premature, weighing just 2 pounds, 5 ounces. He had to stay at Magee Women's Hospital in Pittsburgh for 71 days, but the facility had no place to keep his older sisters, Lauren and Stephanie, ages 2 and 1 at the time, occupied.
The project was launched in 2000, and the neonatal intensive care unit at Magee Women's Hospital was one of the first recipients.
The foundation also accepts the permanent responsibility of caring for the playrooms, visiting each one periodically and updating toys or making repairs.
Wheeling Hospital Chief Executive Officer Ron Violi said at first, getting the grant from the Lemieux Foundation seemed like a "long shot," and he's honored they were chosen.
"They are providing a wonderful and much-needed service to thousands of families across several states," he said of the Lemieux family. "We cannot thank them enough for this amazing gift."
The Most Rev. Michael J. Bransfield, bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, gave the blessing before helping Nathalie Lemieux cut the ceremonial ribbon.
Also on hand for the celebration was Dr. Judy Romano, director of Wheeling Hospital's Center for Pediatrics. She said the project is a perfect example of taking one of life's difficulties and turning it into a blessing.
"God writes straight with crooked lines," Romano said.
Austin Lemieux, despite his early struggles, is in good health today. He normally attends playroom openings, Nathalie Lemieux said, but could not be there Tuesday because of final exams at school.