Lily Lamartina, age 5, treks in and out of the Bob Costas Cancer Center at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, with her mother breathlessly following her.
On one such trek while waiting to be seen by staff, the bundle of childhood energy went outside with her mom into the fresh air of the Anita Sue Gregorich Tranquility Healing Garden. The garden was established as a place for peace and healing outside the halls of the hospital.
“Lily loves to be outside, and she loves the garden” said her mother, Anne Lamartina. “Just the fact that she has someplace she can go that’s beautiful. She loves flowers. You can see see’s really curious.”
Lily was born with a heart defect, had heart surgery at Cardinal Glennon at a year old, and was diagnosed with leukemia at age 3. Her heart coded, her lungs and kidneys failed. She was hospitalized for about eight weeks that time and returned three times a week after that. She’s doing well now and was in the clinic at the end of October for the maintenance phase of her chemotherapy.
“If there’s anybody who’s roamed the entire hospital and grounds, it’s Lily,” said Anne Lamartina, a parishioner at St. Mary Magdalen in Brentwood.
Gregorich was an integral part of SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) for 26 years. Gregorich brought blankets and toys for babies who didn’t have any, talked and played with them because she knew how vital it was, and came in on her days off whenever one of her patients would go home. Outside of her work day, she assisted a special-needs child and with a family in need who she met at the hospital.
“She made all sorts of blankets for the children, she decorated their rooms and would make little notes for the parents” written from the babies’ perspective, explained her longtime friend Terry Barbour. They attended St. Cyril Grade School and St. Teresa’s Academy high school in East St. Louis, Ill., together.
In addition, Gregorich, who was single and had no children, insisted on working holidays so her co-workers could spend time with their families.
Theresa Gelven, a nurse who is a lactation consultant in neonatal services at the hospital, said: “Anita always put others first and worried about all of us. She was our mama duck. Her heart was so big. Anita was a wonderful nurse and the babies miss her big heart and positive attitude.”
Gregorich died from cancer in March 2016. She bequeathed $150,000 to the hospital’s NICU team, and the group decided to use the money to create the garden in her memory, knowing that she enjoyed walking the grounds of the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, Ill., and similar quiet places.
SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Foundation opened the garden in the summer of 2018. The space provides a healing environment and comfort for families at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon.
Gregorich knew that the children were well cared for at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon, Barbour said, and that the outreach to parents also is a priority. “She knew families needed support, quiet time and a place to go, sit and escape the intensity of the situation. They could always go to the chapel, but she felt they needed a place outside in the fresh air,” Barbour said.
Aleeza Granote, hematology/oncology social worker at the hospital, said some of the rooms in the Costas Center overlook the garden. She recalled “a soothing, healing moment” with a patient while looking out the window and another patient who enjoyed collecting some of the painted rocks in the garden. The garden, Granote said, supports the mission of SSM Health Cardinal Glennon to reveal the healing presence of God through exceptional health care services.
After Gregorich died, the U.S. Postal Service forwarded her mail to Barbour, and a surprise greeted her during the Christmas season. “There were so many people whose children had been in the neonatal unit and had stayed in contact with her, sending Christmas cards. I had to write and tell them she passed away. She just had a real impact on our lives,” Barbour said.
Anne Lamartina was impressed upon learning Gregorich’s story. “I think it’s amazing when people do good things for this hospital,” she said. “It’s nice to have a place you can go to just think, and pray or cry.”
Anita Sue Gregorich was proud of her Irish heritage and believed her love of angels came from this heritage.
Fellow nurse at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital Theresa Gelven said angels were everywhere in Gregorich’s home. “The best gift you could give her was an angel of any shape or form,” Theresa said in remarks given at her memorial service. “When Anita was initially told she had spinal cancer, she said, ‘Wouldn’t you know it, with my Irish luck and surrounded by angels — I come down with cancer!’”
Now she is forever memorialized by her generous donation that allowed the creation of the Anita Sue Gregorich Tranquility Garden at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon, a legacy to the patients, their families and the staff of the hospital, a place Gelven called blessed by its very own angel, one who lovingly cared for children in the NICU.
“For those who seek solitude, peace or tranquility from the stressors of a hospital setting, will now have a place to come to either sit and rest or stroll along the paths of the garden where they may feel the calming influence of Anita’s spirit,” Gelven said.