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Pope Francis in Genoa: Pongiglione (Gaslini), “it all began with children’s drawings”

The children, with their drawings, have “brought” the Pope to the Gaslini Institute, the Hospital’s Director Pietro Pongiglione told SIR in an exclusive glimpse into the most intense moments of Pope Francis’ visit to Genoa, May 27.

“All the Popes who visited Genoa have paid a visit to the Gaslini Hospital.” Thus begins the proud account of a tradition that is renewed through one of the most intense moments of Pope Francis’ visit to Genoa on May 27, conveyed to SIR by Pietro Pongiglione, Director of the Gaslini Institute. It all began with the drawings of the young patients of the hospital founded almost 80 years ago by the benefactor of whom it bears the name. The reason for the stopover in what is known as “a city inside the city of Genoa”, is the strictly private visit to the intensive care ward, that Francis will enter alone to meet the hospitalized children and their parents.

The countdown to Pope Francis’ visit has begun. What is the atmosphere at the Gaslini Institute?

There is great anticipation, combined with some concerns that everything may go smoothly, but most of all there is a strong yearning to share a brief, albeit intense moment, with the Pope. Next year will mark 80 years since the foundation of our Institute in 1938.

All the Popes that passed by Genoa have visited the Gaslini Institute.

Hence May 27 will see the renewal of a tradition; an important sign awaited by all the health care staff, and especially by the families of the children.

What are the details of the visit?
The Pope will take the avenue leading to the hospital and will proceed to the intensive therapy unit: it’s the most overpowering ward, with the greatest amount of suffering and the severest child diseases. It will be a meeting with children who are unable to understand much of what is said because they are either too young or because they are under sedation, but their parents will be there, with their great preoccupations. The Pope clearly asked for a meeting with the parents of these children – this is the heart of the visit – followed by a meeting with hospital staff. During the journey, in the corridors and in the area outside the ward, Francis will meet the children who are independent enough to get out of bed and of their rooms.

It will be a special welcome by children who will accompany him. But only he will enter the ward for a strictly private visit.

There is a special relationship between the Pope and children. How did they prepare for this meeting?
They were helped by 40 teachers who work at the hospital on a permanent basis to provide schooling to the young patients. The children follow a special course on the Pope, on his role as head of the Church and also as the person whom they see on television. It’s a special path of growth and true knowledge of Pope Francis that was started some time ago, even before learning about the visit.

I was in Rome at the end of the year. I gave the Pope the children’s drawings, he was deeply touched. Our children are innocent people who are not fully knowledgeable of the figure of the Pope but the great enthusiasm they feel for him is such that it can be explained only with deep empathy. 

The Gaslini Hospital is a special hospital. Half of your patients arrive from other Italian regions and countries, also from areas martyred by the war. What are the roots of this tradition, and how do you ensure its constant “update”?
Indeed, although the “Gaslini” is Genoa’s hospital, many patients come from other Italian regions and from foreign countries. Our wards are marked by multiculturalism and multiracial coexistence, deeply appreciated by the Pope, for he is everyone’s Pope, of children in particular. As regards the roots of our commitment, it comes from our founder who had a great vision:

He built the hospital and then he travelled throughout the world to understand how to ensure its optimal performance. We continued along his path.

We cooperate on a constant, daily basis with the world’s major paediatric hospitals – in North America, Latin America, France and England – as well as Cuba and Haiti, poor Countries that need vocational training of health care professionals. We have promoted a project in the Balkans, currently under way, and we also home Syrian children. Not to mention the network of Italian paediatric hospitals. We have very good relations, inter alia, with the Bambin Gesù Hospital in Rome, and with the Meier Hospital in Florence.

One of your peculiarities is the continuing exchange of research and clinical activity, also in areas that are little explored such as rare diseases. How important is the motivation of those that form part of your community?
It’s a fundamental aspect. If scientific-medical knowledge is not coupled by the motivation to employ it for spirit of mission, or for high-level scientific inspiration, it will lead to nothing. The fact that ours is a paediatric hospital with dedicated areas of expertise in all branches of paediatrics – a unique case in Italy – is of help, for it promotes interaction with physicians experts in all areas of paediatrics present at the same time and in the same place. This enables to effectively address also the most complex situations, such as rare diseases. The presence of medical research near the patients, with constant daily contacts, has shortened the period of treatment speeding up recovery.


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