Artist concept of $5 Million MUSC Children's Play Area within its new children's hospital, set to open in 2019. Gifted by the Zucker Family.
Gift of Play: Zucker Family Gives $5 Million to MUSC for Children's Play Area

Being in the hospital can be a time of anxiety for children. Just ask Laura Zucker, daughter-in-law of local business leader Anita Zucker. By the time she left home for college, she had undergone 18 surgeries to fix a cleft lip and palate.

"When you come into a hospital setting, you don't want to be there," she said. "You're out of your house. You're out of your element. You're not with your friends. Your parents may or may not be able to stay with you. You are scared."

To help ease the stress that children might feel as patients, the Zucker family has given $5 million to the Medical University of South Carolina for a play area within its new children's hospital, set to open in 2019. The 3,200-square-foot space will be known as the Jerry and Anita Zucker Family Atrium.

Anita and Laura Zucker were involved in the planning process for MUSC's new 10-floor Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital, and a large open play space was important to them.

"There was a time when they were going to do small rooms on each floor rather than a larger play area," said Anita Zucker, CEO of the North Charleston-based InterTech Group. "Sometimes it's really special when kids get to be with other kids."

The atrium will be a central area for MUSC's Child Life Program, which supports patients and their families, helping them understand the medical procedures they will undergo and the feelings they might experience.

The hospitals where Laura Zucker underwent her childhood surgeries did not have child life programs. One particular surgery when she was about 9 years old remains vivid.

"I was going into the operating room alone," Laura Zucker said, pointing out that she didn't know the nurses and that the doctors she did know had not yet arrived. "They were like, 'OK, it's time to go to sleep. It was a terrifying feeling that I remember still to this day, of being absolutely terrified. They started to put the mask on me to put me to sleep, and I just started flailing everywhere because I was so terrified."

Along with other toys and activities, the atrium will feature a stage where patients can act out a hospital experience, put on a play or dress up like princesses. "Whatever it is, the spotlight is on them, and they are in the spotlight for a good reason instead of because they have an illness or condition," Laura Zucker said

Laura Zucker decided she did not want other children to feel that way. Since moving to Charleston, she has become an advocate for child life education, helping start a child life master's degree program at the College of Charleston.

"If I had had a child life specialist when I was 9, I would have come to the hospital beforehand and met with the child life specialist, and she would have walked me into the operating room and would have let me hold and play with the mask they were going to put on me," she said. "Just so I could feel comfortable and not have any surprises, and not feel tension from what was going to happen next."

Anita Zucker also has been involved with child life, having become familiar with MUSC's program when she was an elementary school teacher. She serves on the board of a national group that works to build child life zones in children's hospitals.

The atrium will be a place where children can feel safe, Laura Zucker said.

"When I say safe, I mean that doctors and nurses cannot perform anything medical in that area," she said. "It is a space for them and their siblings to feel like they are children. For them to express themselves. They can play with medical toys. The child life specialist can play with medical toys to help the child understand what is going to happen when they go into surgery."

The Zucker family's gift is part of the $116 million MUSC has raised from private sources for its new $385 million children's hospital on Calhoun Street and Courtenay Drive. The facility will replace the 30-year-old children's hospital on Ashley Avenue.

The idea of helping children feel safe and comfortable is incorporated throughout the new hospital design, said John Nash, director of communications for the MUSC Office of Development and Alumni Affairs. For example, he said, rooms are larger so parents and family can visit and stay for days if they choose.

"It's more than a feel-good, fuzzy part of our care here," Nash said. "It's been proven to improve outcomes."

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