NHL Legend Opens Playroom for Children of Wounded Warriors
By Elaine Sanchez
American Forces Press Service
BETHESDA, Md., Sept. 8, 2011 Military and civilian officials -- along with an ice hockey legend -- gathered here yesterday to officially open a new playroom for children of wounded warriors seeking treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Hockey legend Mario Lemieux, his wife, Nathalie, and son, Austin, join Navy Vice Adm. John M. Mateczun, far right, commander of Joint Task Force National Capital Region Medical, and Navy Rear Adm. Matthew Nathan, far left, commander of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in cutting the ribbon to officially open Austin’s Warrior Playroom in a wounded warrior barracks on Naval Support Activity Bethesda, Md., Sept. 7, 2011. The playroom offers children care while their parents attend medical appointments. DOD photo by Elaine Sanchez
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Braving a heavy downpour, NHL great Mario Lemieux, his family and hospital officials stopped by here to dedicate Austin’s Warrior Playroom to the children of outpatient service members and their families.
The weather was a perfect litmus test for the playroom, Navy Rear Adm. Matthew L. Nathan,the medical center’s commander, said. “It’s one of the most dingy, dismal days outside, and this room is bright and cheerful, and full of light and hope,” he said.
Austin’s Warrior Playroom, a bright, airy room stocked with toys, is located near the hospital in Tranquility Hall, a wounded warrior barracks designed to house outpatient service members injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their families. The playroom offers children a fun and educational experience while their parents attend medical appointments and treatment sessions together.
“This room … changes lives that have been dramatically changed,” Nathan said. “Any of us who have children know that if you’re not comfortable or confident in their welfare … you can’t concentrate on what you’re doing, whether you’re at work or whether you’re getting well yourself.”
The playroom is a gift to wounded warriors from the Mario Lemieux Foundation, an organization dedicated to raising funds for cancer research and for hospital playrooms. Lemieux created the foundation in 1993 following his successful battle against Hodgkin’s disease.
He and his wife, Nathalie, later expanded the foundation’s mission after their son, Austin, was born profoundly premature in 1996. While caring for Austin, they realized there wasn’t a place to offer a calming environment for his sisters.
The couple established the Austin’s Playroom Project in 2000. The playroom here marks their 23rd room, and their first in a military hospital.
The playroom offers a way to acknowledge the tremendous sacrifices troops and their families make each day, said Lemieux, who led the Pittsburgh Penguins to two consecutive Stanley Cups as the team’s forward in 1991 and 1992, then again in 2009 as the team’s principal owner. He is still principal owner and chairman of the board for the Penguins.
“This is probably the best that we’ve done over the years; [it’s] certainly the biggest,” he said.
The playroom is about helping families stay together while their loved one seeks medical care. “That’s the most important thing,” Lemieux said, “that families feel comfortable when they come here and have a place to go together.”
The foundation typically places playrooms in neonatal intensive care units and emergency rooms. But as they considered their next step, branching out into a military hospital made perfect sense, said Nancy Angus, the foundation’s executive director.
Service members “protect our freedoms, put themselves in harm’s way, and leave their families at home to do that for us,” she said. “We couldn’t have picked a better location for this room.”
The foundation plans to place more playrooms in military installations in the future, Angus said.
Navy Vice Adm. John M. Mateczun, commander of Joint Task Force National Capital Region Medical, thanked the Lemieux family and their foundation on behalf of the military.
“We in military medicine spend our lives serving those who serve our country, and you are helping to serve those people who serve our country with this contribution … with this addition to the lives of people who had extraordinary changes in their lives,” he said.