Ghosts Haunt Empty Hallways of Children’s Hospital

Start in Maria’s room. Not because it is the first place you go, but because it symbolizes so much of Denver’s old Children’s Hospital.Click here for a slide show.
The Children’s Hospital now carries on at a glimmering new facility in Aurora’s Fitzsimmons medical research park. But ghosts haunt “5 North” and other wings of its former residence, a complex of buildings packed between Downing and Ogden Streets in Denver’s Uptown neighborhood.

The ghosts remind you of the unique medical mission of the place – saving the lives of innocents unaccountable for the genetic twists, indiscriminate infections or brazen brutality that landed them there.

The cream-colored and sky blue walls in Maria’s room tell the story in spiritual graffiti scrawled in the hand of parents, pep talks scrawled in the hand of staff and good wishes scrawled in the hand of kids.

One child has drawn the rudimentary image of a computer monitor, keyboard and mouse in blue marker on the wall by the window.

“Dear Maria,” it says on the screen in juvenile print, “I hope you feel better.”

Hope is a recurrent theme here and on the surrounding floors. You are here to shop for bargains at a sale of furniture and fixtures left over from the move to Fitzsimmons. But by the time you arrive at the quiet reaches of the fifth floor, the search for deals feels vaguely blasphemous.

You discover that you are not alone. The handful of bargain hunters who have risen above the fevered fray of hundreds seeking $20 television sets, $30 lounge chairs, $50 refrigerators and all manner of office, kitchen and janitorial ware, arrive here with the manic glaze of garage sale greed in their eyes. They leave with looks of sadness.

“There are a lot of little ghosts here,” 30-year-old Shawna Gomez explains. “My nephew passed away here not too long ago. I was trying to think which floor.”

It doesn’t matter which floor. The entire institution of Children’s springs from an anomaly. Children aren’t supposed to suffer. But the evidence surrounds you that they did; they do; and they will continue to do so.

On the wall in Maria’s room, someone, presumably a nurse, has penned these words: “15 days old to 15 years old you’ve been here for us. The best is yet to come.”

It has been a long wait – too long in a just world. Only there is nothing fair about this place.

Dressed up in artwork of kites, balloons, hearts and smiley faces, filled with the best technology, buffered with love, it wasn’t always enough.

“It broke my heart to go by the procedure room,” says 31-year-old Jason Pacheco, “because you knew that hundreds of kids had to go in there to be treated.”

The halo drawn above a girl’s name on the wall of the bone marrow transplant unit reminds you that the procedures were not always successful.

Suddenly, tears replace the greedy glaze in your eyes.

They did God’s work here. Only God sometimes moved in mysterious ways that only blind faith could grasp.

The complex combinations of emotions that haunt 5 North coalesce in Maria’s room in a Bible verse from one of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians:

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Witnesses to that power and weakness testified all over the walls of the fifth floor. They headed for a new facility with an old mission. Parents have inscribed their thanks. So have children.

“Goodbye from Joshua!” says the cartoon of a boy. “Thanks for making me better!”

As surprising as anything are the number of staff who toiled not years, but decades amid the highs and lows.

“Part of me will always remain. Love to all,” writes Kathy E. who worked in the old Children’s Hospital from 1985 to 2007.

“Jay was here (for the last 20 years),” says another inscription.

Nearby, an abandoned pile of unused, unwrapped intravenous needles, catheters and tubing suggest part of why he was there, although not why he stayed. Enough left over medical supplies litter the rooms and hallways to keep you in mind of what happened in the now-deserted operating rooms that you encountered on a lower floor.

Or in the rooms of the oncology unit up on the fifth.

Oncology, you know, means cancer. Cancer and kids is the cruelest combination you can fathom. Under a sign that says “Chemotherapy admits,” someone has written, “I feel small and crowded.”

Now, your tears drip on to the floor.

The sight of a blue “Code Call” button in a patient room gives way to fantasy and fear. In a hospital the call, “Code Blue,” means “Get here fast. Someone is dying.”

Someone who is too young. Someone who did nothing to invite their demise. Someone who deserves better.

Then, however big the indignities of your own life once seemed, you feel small and crowded.

The words from writer Kahil Gibran which someone has left outside this room and down the hall haunt you like the ghosts floating in an ether of gurneys, computer monitors, tubes and needles.

“The more sorrow carved into your being,” Gibran said, “the more joy you can contain.”

That might actually be an important guiding principle for The Children’s Hospital wherever it locates.

But you end where you began – in Maria’s room – where the true spirit of the place rests before you in bold blue letters.

“Expect miracles.”

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Jim Spencer

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