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Nursing director helps make Maryville Children’s Healthcare Center ‘a happy place’

Helene Pochopien does a little bit of everything for Northwest Side facility that cares for medically fragile kids and young adults.

When two mothers who worked for an anti-gun violence organization were both killed in a drive-by shooting on Chicago’s South Side in July, the incident quickly made local and national headlines.

When the tragic news reached the Maryville Children’s Healthcare Center, the facility that cared for Geovanni — the infant son of 26-year old victim Chantell Grant — staff was determined to bring him to his mother’s funeral. That was despite the fact that young “Geo” has a medical condition that requires him to stay connected to a ventilator and a tracheostomy tube in order to breathe.

“We talked to his family and said, ‘Of course we’ll bring him to the funeral,’” said nursing director Helene Pochopien. “So we just ended up bringing him there on his ventilator and everything.”

On a recent afternoon, she smiled and pointed to a tiny bed where the 14-month-old Geovanni is staying until his grandparents are able to adopt him. “Just a super cute kid,” she said.

To say that the service is personalized at Children’s Healthcare Center is an understatement.

“It’s like having your own little family at work,” said Rossy Roa-Quintro, the facility’s medical case manager.

The 16-bed facility, located at 4015 N. Oak Park Ave. on the Northwest Side, is a decade-old offshoot of Maryville Academy — a 135-year-old Catholic organization that started as an orphanage for parentless and homeless boys in Chicago after the Great Fire.

It’s unique in that it’s one of only two transitional care units (TCUs) in the state of Illinois. TCUs are designed to help young people ages newborn through 21 years old who are considered medically fragile or completely dependent on devices like a ventilator or feeding pump. When they’re discharged from hospitals, some of them don’t have a home or parents equipped to care for them.

“Some of them might have a single parent who can’t do it by themselves yet. Or parents who don’t have good enough housing to adequately [care] for this medically complex child or just need to be educated about how to take care of a kid on a trach or ventilator,” said Pochopien.

The lines can be blurred between hospital, rehab facility, social services agency and temporary home. Over an average stay of four months, Children’s Healthcare Center provides patients with nursing care, therapy, social activities and rides to school, and also trains parents to properly operate medical equipment. When there are no parents, social workers match kids with foster families.

Helene Pochopien tends to one of Maryville Children’s Healthcare Center’s patients
Helene Pochopien tends to one of Maryville Children’s Healthcare Center’s patients
James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Even job titles can be flexible.

“When people ask me what I do, I’m like well, I’m the director. I set policy and hire people, I go to court, I drive kids to appointments and I’ll go get a gallon of milk if we need that, too,” said Pochopien. Last month, she even played a substitute grandparent for a young patient without one on Grandparents Day at school.

The work is demanding and she’s on call 24/7, but Pochopien doesn’t mind. She even moved a block away to be nearby.

A 63-year-old native of Glenview, she began her career at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago (formerly Children’s Memorial Hospital) back in 1978. Over the last four decades, she’s worked as a neonatal ICU nurse, a transport coordinator and taught at various colleges in the Chicago area.

She was the head of pharmacology and pediatrics at North Park University when she was asked to become an independent consultant at Children’s Healthcare Center in 2015. It wasn’t a difficult decision to accept the role of nursing director two years later.

“It’s a happy place. Everybody here is deeply invested and wants to join us in our quest to help these special kids.”