By KARA YORIO STAFF WRITER | The Record
The room was getting increasingly crowded, but 12-year-old Ahtziri Garcia and her brother didn’t notice. They were busy playing with a new XBox console, laughing and competing against each other at Monday’s official opening of the Lion’s Den interactive playroom at the Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital at Hackensack University Medical Center.
The Lion’s Den rooms provide patients like Garcia with computers, televisions and Xbox consoles and allows the kids to not only play with others in the room, but connect and communicate with the outside world. The rooms are the work of Companions in Courage, the foundation of NHL Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine, who played for the Rangers, Islanders and Buffalo Sabres over his 15-year career.
“This was a labor of love, but now it’s a beacon of hope,” LaFontaine said during the ribbon-cutting ceremony on the pediatric oncology floor. “It’s a beacon of love. It’s a place where kids can come and be kids and smile and hopefully ease their pain.”
He also spoke to the kids directly.
“This is your safe haven, this is your oasis, this is your place to escape to and have fun,” said LaFontaine of the room in which doctors aren’t allowed.
Garcia, now an outpatient at HackensackUMC, seemed to be enjoying it already as she played video games with her older brother, Raul.
“It’s a getaway from all the stress,” she said while playing soccer.
To call the Lion’s Den a playroom is a little misleading.
“When we first met with Edwin Schlossberg who designed the rooms, we kept calling them playrooms,” said Jim Johnson, executive director of Companions in Courage. “He said, ‘I’m going to stop this meeting if you keep calling them playrooms. This is a communications center. You are only limited by technology and as technology develops, you can upgrade.’ ”
That’s exactly what they have done. The technology in the HackensackUMC room is nothing like that of the first room installed more than a decade ago at the Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital at Westchester Medical Center — a room that was recently refurbished and upgraded.
Schlossberg downplayed his role.
“Our design focused on making a space for kids to connect to friends or through media with fun or learning,” he said in an email. “It was to be safe and quiet and have lots of communication tools. That was the idea.”
The room lets patients “just kind of forget about what they’re going through,” said Linda Stanton, administrative director of pediatric hematology/oncology and critical care services.
The children can socialize and play with siblings or fellow patients outside of the isolation of their rooms. A place where pediatric patients can also connect to the outside world, get homework, talk to friends and teachers or just go online.
“They can be a normal teenager in here,” said Johnson, who said some of his best moments over the years have been seeing a mother’s emotional reaction to her child laughing and playing like a typical, healthy child.
The room — the 18th Lion’s Den in the country — was funded by Sohn Conference Foundation. Vice president Evan Sohn called 18 a “very symbolic number.”
“It’s the Hebrew symbol for life,” he said. “Chai, like l’chaim. It’s the symbol of life.”