Some kids arrive by ambulance. Others by helicopter. Some will leave the same day. Others will stay for weeks. Whether they’re in the burn unit, the trauma center, the oncology department or the rehabilitation unit, the children at Legacy Emanuel Children’s Hospital in Portland, Oregon, all have one thing in common: They’d rather be somewhere else.

Jen Usinger is one of five certified Child Life specialists at Legacy Emanuel, dedicated to helping young patients cope with the pain, anxiety and boredom that inevitably accompany their hospital stays. “It’s a kid’s job to play and have fun,” she says, “and we try to incorporate that into their hospital experience.” Penny Arcade’s Child’s Play charity helps them do just that.

Child’s Play, founded in 2003 by Penny Arcade creators Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, recently disclosed that its 2007 holiday donations drive raised more than $1.1 million in cash, toys and games for children’s hospitals like Legacy Emanuel. Though Child’s Play began as a modest attempt to provide toys and games to the Seattle Children’s Hospital, last year the gaming community and industry helped the charity provide donations to 50 hospitals in North America and worldwide.

2007 was Legacy Emanuel’s second year as a Child’s Play beneficiary. Like other participating hospitals, its patients have benefited from a steady stream of holiday donations, often purchased by Child’s Play donors from hospital-specific Amazon.com wish lists. The hospital gets books, DVDs, art activity sets, board games and more. “It’s been great,” says Usinger. “It’s impressive that we get to have a say, because we don’t necessarily get a budget to buy toys or videogame systems. It’s how we’ve received all of our hand-held games. Those don’t come in through individual donors very often – that’s a rarity.”

Legacy Emanuel serves children in just about every state of illness or injury you can imagine. It’s one of two hospitals in Oregon that accepts pediatric trauma patients via life-flight, a helicopter rescue program for patients in immediate danger of death. It has a state-of-the-art burn treatment center and an inpatient physical rehabilitation unit. Tonsillectomies, chemotherapy, spinal fusions, eating disorders, you name it; kids at Emanuel are going through it. Small things like toys and games make a big difference in their hospital experiences. “Kids get better quicker if they’re doing thing that kids should be doing, like playing,” says Usinger. “They get better quicker and get out of the hospital quicker. It’s not this big scary place, where it was boring and they had tons of pokes and everything hurt.”

Games and activities are much more than just novel pastimes. They’re a desperately needed distraction from the discomfort and boredom of hospitalization, where kids too often find themselves confined to bed or otherwise isolated. “That’s not part of being a kid, and that’s not what you should be doing,” says Usinger. “What you should be doing is playing. Kids in the hospital aren’t going to be outside running laps, but they still need to play. I mean, I can prepare them for surgery, and we can do medical play and all of that stuff, but you can’t do that all day. You have to take a mental break. You have to check out and be a kid.”

Usinger notes that videogames also provide a kid-oriented supplement to often grueling physical therapy routines, especially for patients recovering from traumatic spinal cord or brain injuries. At Legacy Emanuel they use PlayStation 2 EyeToy camera-enabled games to help restore coordination. And the Nintendo Wii has been a hit with the hospital’s mid-level quadriplegic patients. “Maybe they can’t play regular videogames,” Usinger says, “but I’ll Velcro a Wii remote to their wrist, and they can play tennis.”

Less expensive toys and activities often go home with patients, but videogames and gaming systems are heavily used, precious items that, like most Child’s Play hospitals, Legacy Emanuel can’t afford to replace. “You can’t really fix them,” says Usinger. “When they break, they’re done. If they get stolen, you’re done. That’s the hard part. If we didn’t have donations coming in, we wouldn’t have them.” When the 155-bed hospital signed on with Child’s Play in 2005, their hand-held gaming supply had dwindled to a mere five GameBoys. A much-appreciated shipment of Nintendo DS units had a major impact, especially for kids confined to their rooms.

Holiday donations from charities like Child’s Play bring year-round benefits. “Ninety-nine percent of what gets us through the year comes in a four to six week period over Christmas,” says Usinger. In fact, hospital staff simply can’t process the volume of toys that arrive during the holidays. “It’s stuff we end up needing on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis for the entire year.”

Child’s Play donations are used throughout Legacy Emanuel Children’s Hospital every day, but you’d never know it. They arrive without fanfare, for the hospital to use as they see fit, no strings attached. There’s no Penny Arcade plaque in the font lobby, and you won’t find Child’s Play stickers on the DS systems or DVDs kids take back to their rooms. Patients, their families and most hospital staff have no idea where the donations came from. And ultimately, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that these toys and games are available to sick kids.

“We really appreciate it,” says Usinger, undoubtedly echoing the sentiments of a multitude of caregivers, parents and children. “Because we have these donations, I get to ask kids, ‘what would you like to do today? Because I really think that you should have some fun in your day today.’ Without these donations coming in, I couldn’t do that.”

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