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Touching lives through holiday hospital visits

by Dyan LeBourdais / New York Islanders
The holiday season is supposed to be a time when families trade in time spent in front of the television for quality time with their loved ones. It could be playing board games in front of a fire with a cup of hot chocolate, decorating the house, or exchanging gifts.

All too often though, families are hit with unexpected illnesses or injuries, and their lives are changed. Instead of parents staying up late shopping for last minute gifts online, they sit anxiously by the foot of their child’s hospital bed, spending hours in a hospital each week. For those families, holidays can be an extremely difficult time of year.

New York Islanders Rick DiPietro and Dylan Reese take a photo with five-year-old Jake Brunette during their Holiday Hospital Visit to Steven and Alexandra Cohen's Children's Medical Center on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011. Click photo to view a gallery.
Wednesday afternoon, the New York Islanders split into eight small groups and visited seven local children’s hospitals and one special school to deliver toys and spread holiday spirit to the young people and their families who need it most. Emblem Health, a partner of the New York Islanders, sponsored the event as well as provided the toys, which the players shopped for themselves last week at Toys “R” Us in Carle Place.

John Tavares, Matt Moulson, Rick DiPietro, Mark Streit and Dylan Reese ventured to Steven and Alexandra Cohen’s Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park to play Santa for the day. The four players broke down into two teams to spread holiday cheer to as many children as possible. The players traveled to a dozen different wings of the hospital with toys in tow.

“It’s just a good opportunity to give back to the community,” Reese said. “We are all really lucky, especially the guys on the team. Sometimes we can take for granted, but just being here, we can see the smiles on people’s faces and that we can help bring happiness. It’s really something special and it gives you a nice, warm feeling inside. Around the holidays, it’s especially important.”

Nearly every player on the Islanders roster, healthy and injured, traveled to visit children in their communities who needed them. Also included in the eight visits were: Nassau University Medical Center (Al Montoya, Matt Martin, Kyle Okposo), Winthrop University Hospital (Frans Nielsen, Jay Pandolfo, Josh Bailey, Kevin Poulin), Stony Brook Hospital (Travis Hamonic, Micheal Haley, Tim Wallace), Good Samaritan Hospital (Michael Grabner, Marty Reasoner, Mark Eaton), St. Mary’s Children’s Hospital (Brian Rolston, Andrew MacDonald, Steve Staios), North Shore Hospital, Manhasset (Milan Jurcina, Nino Niederreiter) and Henry Viscardi School: The National Center for Disabilities (Mike Mottau, PA Parenteau, David Ullstrom).

Visiting each facility for over two hours, the players played games with kids and walked door-to-door, bedside-to-bedside, hoping to make all the kids laugh, forget that they were sick and truly act like their age, even if it was for only a little while.

New York Islanders John Tavares, Matt Moulson and Rick DiPietro take a photo with a patient during their Holiday Hospital Visit to Steven and Alexandra Cohen's Children's Medical Center on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011. Click photo to view a gallery.
“It’s very emotional visiting some of the families and kids,” Moulson said. “We just tried to brighten their day a little bit by bringing a present, spending some time with them and talking to them. There were a lot of interesting kids out there, some wild imaginations and they were real fun to talk to. It’s good to put a smile on their face.”

The director of Steven and Alexandra Cohen’s Children’s Medical Center, AnnMarie DiFrancesca, helped escort the players around her hospital. After watching the Islanders return year after year, she couldn’t be more thrilled with the effect their visit has on patients and their families.

“They really empower the kids to get out of bed,” DiFrancesca said. “It’s an incentive. It’s excitement. It makes the holiday season so much better, especially for many of our kids that are here during the holiday season.”

DiFrancesca continued, “When families are typically at home and preparing for the holidays, these kids are kind of left out, being in the hospital. These visits are truly a treat for our kids. The hockey players, all of them, are fabulous with the kids. They really spend time with all the kids.”

Tavares had a special connection with 12-year-old Francesco Galvarno. An avid soccer player from Tappan, NY, in Rockland County, Galvarno couldn’t stop talking about the sport he loves and played competitively for many years. Even though he can’t play right now because he’s sick, Francesco proudly showed off a newspaper article about his older brother Giovanni.

Left: Francesco Galvarno, age 12, laughs with the New York Islanders during their Holiday Hospital Visit to Steven and Alexandra Cohen's Children's Medical Center on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011. Right: Enzo Galvarno shows Islanders players a picture of his son Francesco playing soccer before he became sick.
“I’m a big soccer fan and my dad loves soccer, so I saw that connection between him and his dad,” Tavares said of Francesco and his father Enzo Galvarno. “You could tell he was real passionate about it and enjoyed playing. From what we saw, it seemed like he was a good little player too, so it was nice spending some time with him.”

From the time Tavares, Moulson and DiPietro walked in to Francesco’s room, he was standing up and cracking jokes. He talked to the players about his brothers, his love for playing soccer and learning to play the guitar.

Even after they left the room, Francesco couldn’t stop smiling. He said, “I’m a rockin’ soul. I was excited to see them. It was very nice, just awesome.”

Enzo Galvarno later found the players in hospital hallway and said, “Thank you so much, you made this very special for him.”

That’s what these trips are for. And that’s what the holiday season is all about.

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