The Children's Institute Blog

Students From Two Squirrel Hill Schools Meet

Posted by The Children's Institute - Oct 25, 2017

Students from The Children’s Institute’s Day School and St. Edmund’s Academy gathered Tuesday at the Halloween-themed party as part of a social-skills program to celebrate differences and learn from each other.

Anthony Pipkin, 10, a St. Edmund’s Academy fourth-grader, ate the candy corn but said it “tasted like wax.” Amiyr Mack, 8, a student at The Day School of The Children’s Institute, wanted potato chips and cookies. Emma Ford, 8, Amiyr’s peer, was more interested in “being with new friends” and less interested in snacks.

But, one thing bound them all.

“My favorite part is certainly the human element,” said St. Edmund’s teacher Robin Colin, who brought two classes of fourth-graders from her school to The Children’s Institute. “They’re the same on the inside – they all want to feel connected, they all want to have friends.”

Friendship played a central role in the Halloween shenanigans, as children from each school partnered up as they sought to bowl over a tower of ghost-adorned toilet paper or play a round or two of “Hot Pumpkin.” And there were more than enough orange-crème-filled Oreos, candy corn, and potato chips to go around.

Just ask Emily Hummert, 10, of St. Edmund’s.

“It’s fun,” she told us, as she scored five candy corns across in Halloween Bingo. “I want candy, more candy.”

“I’m having fun, too,” said Ryleigh Tardy, 9. “This time, we played bingo!”

Stacy Porter Smith, a social-skills therapist at The Children’s Institute, kicks off the initiative by visiting St. Edmund’s – bringing wheelchairs or testing the students’ Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC) skills on an iPad with the program Proloquo-To-Go.

“It’s disability awareness,” Stacy said. “When I go to schools, I challenge them and say, ‘When you see that kid sitting all alone on the playground, go over. When you see a kid in a wheelchair, don’t treat them differently. You’re a kid. They’re a kid.’”

Robin said, at the beginning of the partnership each year, some of her students will be a little unfamiliar with children with special needs, and there are “some deer-in-the-highlights moments.”

“By the end of the year, they’re playing together, they’re holding hands, they help with snack,” Robin said. “I really look forward to the comfort level of our students growing as the year progresses.”

Robin said she’s been taking part in the program with The Children’s Institute for all of the seven years she has taught at St. Edmunds, a K-8 school.

“The neat thing is, by the end of the year, the staff is just standing there,” Stacy said, “because the kids, they just grab each other and say, ‘Let’s go!’”


National PT Month: Torticollis

Posted by The Children's Institute - Oct 24, 2017

After launching, in 1994, the Back to Sleep campaign – a National Institutes of Health initiative encouraging parents to sleep infants on their backs to reduce risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) – incidence of SIDS dropped more than 50 percent. But what clinicians might not have anticipated was a spike in cases of torticollis, a condition – which we are profiling today as part of National Physical Therapy Month – where the head tends to be rotated to one side and tilted to the opposite side. In infants, it is generally congenital muscular torticollis.

Torticollis therapyBecause infants now are sleeping on their backs, muscles in the neck and upper back aren't stretched and strengthened as much as if they were sleeping in a prone position, or on their stomachs.

“We’ve gone from generations of infants who’ve spent most of their time on their bellies to generations of kids who spend most of their time on their backs,” said Theresa Miller-Ferri, a physical therapist at The Children’s Institute. “If they’re staying in the same position all of the time … that can cause other asymmetries in the head and face, and elsewhere in the body that can impact development.”

“If left untreated, it’s not going to go away on its own,” she added.

Laura Caton came to The Children’s Institute earlier this year, when her daughter Eleanora was just two months old. She had noticed there was something wrong about the way her daughter was positioning her head shortly before Eleanora’s two-month well visit with their pediatrician. Four months later, the problem is resolved almost entirely.

“The way I would hold her, her face was always sort of stuck in my shoulder [and] that would make her cry,” Laura said. “Now, she can look over my shoulder – and look both ways.”

“A lot of the therapy is so subtle – [Theresa] seems like she’s playing when she’s working with her – it’s pretty cool,” said Laura, who also is Mom to big sister Reese, 12, and big brother Ezra, three. “I never feel it’s uncomfortable for her and it’s made such a huge impact. Within even just a couple of weeks, I started noticing a change.”

“I look forward to going. I look forward to her progress,” she added.

Laura recently introduced Eleanora to a family friend who works with infants with torticollis.

“She never noticed. She was surprised when I told her she had it,” Laura said. “That’s how much she’s improved …. She looks both ways. She has terrific range of motion.”

Theresa said it’s not uncommon to see those gains – as long as caregivers identify the problem and address it early.

“The earlier, the better,” Theresa said.


Marking Respiratory Care Week

Posted by The Children's Institute - Oct 23, 2017

Brady Lumpkin is set to be discharged from The Children’s Institute tomorrow, the second day of Respiratory Care Week.

Patient Brady receiving respiratory careBut to Brady, a respiratory care patient who soon turns 25, the day is yet another step in a long journey.

The West Virginia by-way-of Oklahoma native was riding April 30 as a passenger on an all-terrain vehicle, or ATV – something he’s been doing his whole life – when his driver hit what he called “a good-size rock.” He suffered a spinal cord injury and lost use of his limbs. But, since coming to The Children’s Institute, he has made strides.

“He came with a trach and on full-ventilator support,” said Respiratory Care Clinical Supervisor Lyndsi Yarkosky, RRT-NPS. “Within a few months, we were able to fully wean Brady off of the vent. Along with his continuous diaphragmatic pacer, he uses a Passy-Muir valve during the day and his trach mask at night.”

Brady, for one, has appreciated each step along the way, he told me as speech-language pathologist Katie Hartman fed him nectar-thick liquids.

“It’s been tough but I’m making progress,” Brady said.

“Really, seeing his progress is awesome,” added Tiffany Oldfield, 22, Brady’s girlfriend.

Katie said much of his progress in being able to communicate is due to the fact that he also weaned off what is known as a cuffed trach.

“His voice was a lot better once we got rid of that,” Katie said. “His vocal folds got more sturdy.”

The goal of the nine-person respiratory care team, in fact, is to wean off those breathing aids, Lyndsi said.

“We’re pretty successful with weaning,” Lyndsi said. “Along with the doctors, we’re collaborating with the patient and the providers for weaning – weaning off oxygen, weaning off a ventilator, and working toward decannulation [no more trach] in many cases.”

The team takes its job – and things like infection control – seriously and it shows. Lyndsi said she cannot recall a single incidence of ventilator-associated pneumonia during her eight-year tenure here.

“And a large part of our job is also to provide education and train the family,” she added.

In Brady’s case, that’s Tiffany, who will care for him when the two return to West Union, W. Virg. this week.

“There’s been tough times,” Tiffany admitted.

But, tomorrow, there’s even more reason for hope.


A Spirit-ed Halloween Bash

Posted by The Children's Institute - Oct 20, 2017

They came to The Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh this week with costumes in every size imaginable – a Lego knight, a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger, Super Mario, G.I. Joe.

They came with pumpkins to paint, stark-white masks to decorate, and lava-lamps to customize, not to mention a giant Kenny the Kangaroo to pose with in selfies.

They came with trendy backpacks, masks, wigs, blankets, and enough nail polish, lip gloss and temporary tattoos to accessorize an army.

“We do it for the kids,” said Spirit Halloween District Manager Amanda Makin, who leads stores in four Pennsylvania communities – Johnstown, Indiana, Lewisburg and Dubois. “We do get a lot of shock, especially from parents when they hear it’s free and we’re giving it away. If you can’t go out and trick-or-treat, kids can get depressed. So, we bring it to them.”

Child-life and therapeutic activities programs at The Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh would be impossible without Spirit Halloween. Its Spirit of Children fund-raiser, which has started for the 2017 Halloween season, has raised $37 million for child-life activities at North American hospitals in the past 10 years.

At The Children’s Institute alone, Spirit Halloween has donated $212,887 fueled by supporters’ purchases to date. In FY2017, that amount totaled $49,476.

You could count Isaac Kohn, 7, among the excited. The Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio boy was set to be discharged this week after taking part in an inpatient feeding program.

But what was the main reason he was excited to be at The Children’s Institute Wednesday night? The Spirit Halloween party.

“He’s been dying for this,” Isaac’s mom, Sierra Hampl, laughed. “It’s going to be very quiet without Isaac here.”

In another corner of Austin’s Playroom, a Spirit Halloween staffer – there were more than a half-dozen of them, from throughout Western Pennsylvania – with bright red hair helped deck out inpatient Madison Johnson in full regalia.

“She just wanted to see what this was all about,” said Madison’s mom, Valerie, chiming in with a recurring “Oh, my heavens!” as the Peters Township, Pa. family walked through a maze of free goodies. “It’s kind of overwhelming. It’s great to give these kids a distraction.”

For Spirit Halloween staffer Jennifer Sigvaldsen, who manages the Dubois store, it’s more than a distraction – it’s a mission.

“This is why I work for Spirit,” said Jennifer, after handing Madison some lip gloss and nail polish. “Spirit is an easy company to love and be passionate about. It’s satisfying. It’s gratifying. Knowing all of this is done for the kids? It’s empowering.”


Profiling Our Physician Assistants

Posted by The Children's Institute - Oct 18, 2017

Ali Kristobak and Kara Malagise started working at The Children’s Institute within two weeks of each other in the spring of 2016. But the organization’s only Physician Assistants, who we interviewed during Physician Assistant Week, hardly see each other and have never worked side-by-side.

“There’s only two of us,” laughed Kara, who covers inpatients on 3W while Ali works in inpatient and outpatient Behavioral Health. “It’s nice to know there’s another one around, though.”

Kara – a Beaver County native with two children of her own, who attended the University of Pittsburgh and then PA school in sunny Arizona – does a broad range of things on our 3W wing.

“It’s hard to summarize what I do. I can’t say, ‘I see patients, I treat patients,’” Kara said. “I’m involved heavily in admissions and dealing with patients as they come and go. And I also support nursing and the therapies.”

Kara has been working as a PA for eight years, previously at a Weirton, W.Virg.-area pediatrics practice.

“Everybody is really great on the team with these kiddos – I really feel our unit makes a real difference in patients’ and families’ lives,” Kara said. “I like that you get to work with other families. It puts things in perspective.”

She also particularly enjoys working with inpatients with feeding needs.

“When they’ve just made such good progress – it’s great to see that,” Kara said.

Dr. Howard Ferimer had high praise for Kara’s work ethic.

“She’s a great asset for The Children’s Institute – a team player who does great work she’s not asked to do,” he said.

Ali is native to Johnstown, Pa. But, by the time she started working as a PA in that city’s Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center, she was commuting from Murrysville – some 60 miles away. Since coming to The Children’s Institute, she and her husband Alec, who met in a Penn State a capella group, relocated to nearby Greenfield.

For Ali, the path to medicine was clear, even from her younger school years.

“I definitely had thoughts about medical school but, to be quite honest, I’m indecisive so I like the flexibility of being a PA,” Ali said. “You can easily switch fields. If I decide I want to practice something other than psychiatry, I could apply for something like cardiology or general practice.”

In her decision to stay at The Children’s Institute, it doesn’t hurt that she’s working on the Behavioral Health Unit with Dr. Aileen Oandasan, with whom she also worked at Conemaugh.

“It’s nice to have the continuity because she was one of the people who trained me [and] our styles of practice really jived right away,” Ali said. “I feel like there’s been really great collaborations amongst the clinical team. They really value our role in these patients’ care.”

And psychological services remain close to her heart, in part because she went through a period in her pre-teens where a family member suffered a major depressive episode.

“I really loved and excelled at the physical health things. I was top of my class. But I was drawn to psych because of the challenge it presented,” she said. “You can’t prepare in the same way for psychiatry as for physical health. It’s not, ‘You have an ear infection. Here’s amoxicillin.’ It’s really an art.”

Dr. Oandasan said Ali has got that art down.

“She’s probably the best PA I’ve ever worked with,” Dr. Oandasan said. “Despite her only being out of school for a few years, she comes off as a very experienced Physician(no ‘s) Assistant. I wouldn’t be able to function without her.”


Marking Mental Illness Awareness Week

Posted by The Children's Institute - Oct 13, 2017

Nearly two years ago, Josh McKivigan was serving as assistant director of a Pennsylvania-based mental-health agency when he heard about The Children’s Institute’s approach to integrative health.

Patients in a behavioral health crisis were experiencing an integrative treatment model, he heard, and doing things like biofeedback, a non-drug treatment in which patients learn to control bodily processes that are normally involuntary, such as muscle tension, blood pressure, or heart rate.

“You really get to see the picture of the whole kid,” he said.

He left that job and has been at The Children’s Institute, working first as a behavioral health outpatient therapist and now as the Clinical Program Manager of Inpatient Behavioral Health, ever since. We talked with McKivigan and his colleagues recently to mark Mental Illness Awareness Week, which runs through today.

“The Children’s Institute is just a very unique place – being able to collaborate, to have all of the disciplines together, and being able to talk to these patients in this customized way.”

That’s Dr. Paula Cerrone, who’s worked for more than three years here as a neuropsychologist and, more recently, as manager of outpatient behavioral health services. Both Cerrone and McKivigan divide their days between treatment and administrative duties.

“[Collaboration] is something that’s really special here,” Cerrone said. “And it’s all under one roof.”

What do they mean? Well, at The Children’s Institute, when a patient is seeking treatment for mental health or help during a behavioral health crisis, they also get assessed by a team of clinicians concerned with their physical well-being.

“I think that’s becoming a huge sort of story in healthcare,” Cerrone said. “A lot of physical problems can affect a child’s mental functioning and vice versa. It goes both ways.”

She cited a child who came to The Children’s Institute because they were grappling with cognitive issues associated with chemotherapy. We discovered the child was on the autism spectrum.

“Because we have multiple services, they were able to have a nice collaboration between services, which is pretty unique to us,”Cerrone said.

“On our inpatient Behavioral Health Unit, we also try to include the caretaker, the guardians and that child’s community treatment team; we look to involve them and bring them together with our treatment approaches,” McKivigan added.

Those services are more in need than ever. Through the third quarter of Fiscal Year 2015 we provided 83% more outpatient services than we did in the same period of Fiscal Year 2014, and 16% over the targeted initiative goal, according to our most recent Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA).

Approximately one in five adults in the United States—an estimated 43.8 million people—experiences mental illness in a given year.

But treatment, though views of it are improving, still comes with a stigma. The Children’s Institute tackles this using evidenced base approaches such as Cognitive Behavioral Health Therapy and by building a comfortable environment with the patient.

McKivigan said one patient, early in their outpatient treatment asked, “Will this be on my record?” Later, they missed one session and were incredibly apologetic, not wanting to skip out on their time with therapy. McKivigan shared how the working relationship and individualized treatment approaches with each patient help breakdown mental health stigmas.

“Therapy now is shorter. It’s much more focused,” Cerrone added. “And it’s targeted to find a solution.”


Quasics Wows Inpatients With Robots

Posted by The Children's Institute - Oct 13, 2017

Quasics, the robotics club from Gateway High School, is on a mission to spread STEM and STEAM education wherever it lands its feet. A group of about a dozen people from the 45-member team brought that mission recently to The Children’s Institute, displaying customized robots and inviting inpatients to control a tiny BB8 model with nothing but a swipe on the iPad.

The mission is far from a new one.

“By the end of this month, we’re going to have done 20 or so of these outreach events since July Fourth,” said Sean McMahon, the Pittsburgher who’s been coaching Quasics since it formed 11 years ago in Monroeville, Pa. “My kids are getting pretty good at matching with whoever they’re demonstrating for.”

That was especially evident with one patient with a brain injury whose cognitive level was low but desire to have a little fun was high.

“It looked like she was having a blast,” said Children’s Institute Child Life Assistant Michelle Johnson, who added the girl was using the iPad to control the Star Wars character BB8. “It was amazing to see the progress that she has made here at The Children’s Institute manifest in her ability to play and, ultimately, have fun.”

The two centerpieces of the Quasics displays were a one-foot-tall robot, “Millie,” named after the first female professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and two-foot by three-foot by three-foot robot that drove and took spins around The Children’s Institute’s gym. “Millie” was built specifically for demonstrations from the VEX Robotics EDR kit. “Nike” was the Quasics robot entry in the 2017 FIRST Robotics Competition.

“They really enjoyed it,” Michelle added. “One of our patients expressed interest in joining the Robotics Club at her own high school so she could design a robot of her own.”

Group mentor Nicole Kelly, whose son is a four-year member of Quasics, said she watched two shy inpatients come out of their shell when they were encouraged by the kids to assist them in building a caterpillar robot.

“After they allowed the Quasics kids to help them, they didn’t want to stop interacting with them and the robots,” Nicole said. “Allowing our kids this rewarding opportunity has changed their lives and helped them grow and learn as well.”

Sean, who was joined by coaches Meg Gilmore and Antonio Garcia-Smith, said Quasics usually draws in students who have taken a robotics class at Gateway. But that’s far from all.

“Some of them are naturally drawn to science and technology,” Sean said.

“And we have to impress them,” he laughed.


Dell Technologies Supports Children's Institute, Mattress Factory Museum

Posted by The Children's Institute - Oct 12, 2017

For Dell Technologies’ John Bouchard – who travels from Detroit to Pittsburgh for three to four days each week to help manage PNC Bank’s technology needs – the region’s philanthropic spirit boiled down recently to one specific leg of The Great Race.

“It’s not too often you can walk down Boulevard of the Allies and see the skyline – being near the water, seeing the diverse landscape,” John said. “To be able to shut a city down for a good cause like that says a lot about this community.”

Several dozen Dell Technologies employees, their families and others took part in the race this year, and the company donated proceeds from the walk to The Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh and The Mattress Factory museum. For Ray Nair, a Dell Technologies client executive, that’s just the beginning.

“It’s a modest amount of money we raised this year but it’s a foundation. Our goal is to double that amount next year,” Ray said. “It is a fun thing for the families involved. It is a good thing for the stakeholders. It’s a good thing all around.”

John has developed some favorite Pittsburgh haunts – dinner at Meat & Potatoes, ball game at PNC Park – but he got the most pleasure during The Great Race not passing by those haunts, but in watching his children run and walk alongside him. His son Hunter ran the 5K in less than 27 minutes. And his younger son Carter had a great time too: “50 yards from the finish line, he started to sprint – just to show off,” John laughed.

Ray even beat his 5K time, due in large part, he said, to the downhill route at the end of the race.

“I never ran from the University of Pittsburgh area, down that path,” he said. “When I’m there during the week, the place is jam-packed. But it was the weekend. I was like, ‘Look, this is Oakland!’”

“It actually is good for all units of our business, to get a chance to be out there in the community,” Ray added. “We wanted to use a fun event to coalesce our efforts around. Obviously, our focus is to contribute to the community that we’re a part of, and that PNC Bank is a part of.”

“I think what Dell Technologies did was a really wonderful way to support the Pittsburgh community,” said Caitlin Harpster, Director of Development at Mattress Factory. “It was an honor to participate in The Great Race with The Children’s Institute knowing that both our organizations can share this opportunity to make a greater impact on our collective community.”

For more information on Dell Technologies or its philanthropic efforts, visit


The Waits Family's Project STAR Story

Posted by The Children's Institute - Oct 06, 2017

Pittsburghers Todd and Liz Waits first went to a Project STAR information session about foster care in 2012. Less than a year later, Nathan arrived.

He was their first placement and different from their biological son, Connor, just one month younger, in some ways – black to the family’s white, short to the family’s tall, and with a number of medical complexities, including a heart transplant, previous stroke, and ongoing seizure disorder.

None of that mattered.

“I try not to be cheesy but the second Nathan walked into the room, there was instant acceptance,” Todd said. “[Connor and Nathan] treat each other as brothers, too. He is just a part of the family. There’s no sense of ‘other.’”

“Nathan’s never like ‘Where did I come from?’” he added. “He’s never said anything about it being weird for him. It’s normal.”

Seven months after they started foster care with Nathan, the Waitses adopted him.

“It was right for us to take him in,” Liz said. “The following seven months there was a lot going on. Between learning how to be foster parents, while being foster parents, trying to bond with a kid who has experienced more trauma in his little, three-year-old life then I ever have – it was a rollercoaster, to say the least.”

What differs about adoptions like Nathan’s compared to those from a generation or two ago is that adoptive families often keep a biological parent or parents in the loop about the child’s life. Such is the case with Nathan and his birth mother, Lolene.

“It became very apparent to us that even though Nathan was a foster kid for nearly his entire life, the only consistent person he had was his birth mom,” Liz said. “As our love grew for him, it also grew for her. How could it not? When we hug her she feels like him, and when we see her she makes facial expressions like him. Also, they love each other!”

It’s been about four years now since Nathan arrived. The Waitses feel they might consider fostering again – but, for now, they want to focus on their immediate family.

“We want to make sure [Nathan] knows there’s absolute permanence here,” Todd said.

“A lot of people will say – in a thoughtful way – that Nathan is lucky to have us,” Liz added. “But we feel the very opposite. He didn't get to choose his life and circumstances he was born into. None of us do. Nathan has experienced a lot. I wouldn't call him lucky; I would call him very strong. We are lucky to get to be his parents, and get the privilege of seeing him grow up with his brother and see what kind of people they grow up to be.”


Celebrate Healthcare Food Service Workers Week!

Posted by The Children's Institute - Oct 05, 2017

Leslie Kurban, the cashier in The Children’s Institute’s Squirrel Hill cafeteria, is the face of an organization that served 154,888 meals this past fiscal year.

But, for Leslie, whose food group we are profiling today in celebration of Healthcare Food Service Workers Week, it’s the people, not the meals, who help to pass the days.

“I see people every day. I know more about what they eat and what they drink than what their names are,” she laughed. “You can tell the time of day by what time people come in.”

Leslie is one of the more senior employees on a team of 21 that handles everything from running the cafeteria and catering events to serving patient meals up on the inpatient wings. In the dining room alone this year – from the fiscal year running October 2016 to September 2017 – they estimate they have served about 74,000 patrons.

“It just takes a lot of dedication and attention to seasonality, as well as attention to the market “ said Johanna “Jody” Michalik, director of food and nutrition services, and the head of the Morrison team for the past five years. “Today’s world is a lot more complicated. But it’s just keeping up with all the trends, the rules and regulations. There’s always something happening.”

In 2012, Michalik boomeranged from California to Pittsburgh – she used to live in central Pennsylvania – after working in school, corporate and hospital settings. Her last position in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) graduate, served as operations director of five kitchens serving families, students and seniors in need, Open Heart Kitchen, a non-profit.

In the Behavioral Health Unit, on the fourth floor, Morrison presents Mediterranean style meals that must be healthy and interesting. So, all meats are baked, meals are cooked in extra virgin olive oil, and snacks include guacamole and pita chips with hummus.

On the 3W wing, though, they can get away with some sweets. For Sunday Fun snack, “We try to do desserts; the patients enjoy the treat” Michalik said.

In the dining room, there’s an even wider variety – everything from soups and desserts made from scratch, and grilled items like hamburgers, hot dogs, and chicken wraps, to a fresh-every-day salad bar and a self-serve entrée and breakfast bar, bagel-and-sandwich station. And then there are the specials.

“There are a few entrees I can never take off the menu because I’d have my head chopped off,” Michalik laughed. “The Pittsburgh salad; the taco salad; the ribs; the fried chicken, mac and cheese, and stewed tomatoes.”

Don’t worry, fans. They’re not going anywhere anytime soon.

Other things don’t change. Tomorrow, you will see Leslie’s smiling face behind the cash register.

“I am doing more now than when I started. I may be stocking, getting more stuff; I may be washing,” Kurban said. “I do the vending machines, too, for the evenings and weekends.”

“And I like it,” she added. “I can’t sit at a desk in front of a computer – I would die.”


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