Tina Wilkins, a biologist at the New England Aquarium and her co-worker Eric Payne launched SEA Star in 2012 to provide a small group of pediatric patients and their families with two-hour behind-the-scenes tours of the aquarium.
INSIDE LOOK: Wilkins explains an X-ray to an attentive Delia, center.
MassGeneral Hospital for Children (MGHfC) patients Delia Binette, 6, and Tyson LeBlanc, 7, stare transfixed at the glowing image that lights up the little room. Despite their age, both are familiar with X-ray machines and hospitals. But this X-ray is special – it shows the inside of a lookdown fish.
“How do you X-ray them without water?” asks Morgan, Delia’s 10-year-old sister.
“We put them to sleep with anesthesia first and then X-ray them quickly so that they don’t take a breath without water,” says Tina Wilkins, a biologist at the New England Aquarium.
On Nov. 7, Wilkins led Delia, Tyson and their families on a special after-hours tour of the New England Aquarium as part of the Sea Exploration and Adventure Star (SEA Star) program. Wilkins and her co-worker Eric Payne launched SEA Star in 2012 to provide a small group of pediatric patients and their families with two-hour behind-the-scenes tours of the aquarium. Wilkins’ husband, Stephen, a cardiac anesthesia fellow at the MGH, introduced her to Child Life Specialist Melissa Tecci, who helped tailor the program to MGHfC patients. Now, every other month, two or three patients are selected to visit the aquarium, which includes a stop in the Animal Medical Area to show the parallels between their treatment and the ones the animals receive.
“I think it’s really important for them to see the medical area and understand that the animals get sick too. They’re not the only ones in the world that aren’t feeling well,” Wilkins says. “It’s good for them to see how we treat the animals and how we make them feel better.”
During the tour, Tyson sticks close to his 10-year-old brother PJ – until aquarists Sean Marden and Monika Schmuck ask him to help feed needlefish in the Giant Ocean Tank. “It’s awesome to see the happiness and joy not just in my kids but the other family as well,” says Tara LeBlanc, Tyson’s mom.
Kristine Binette, Delia’s mom, smiles throughout the tour. “Delia’s had a really tough week, but this has meant a lot to her. She’s been saying that she’s having the best time. I don’t remember the last time she said those words.”
Along with the Animal Medical Center, the tour includes stops in the New Balance Foundation Marine Mammal Center, Blue Planet Action Center, Giant Ocean Tank, Yawkey Coral Reef Center, and Trust Family Foundation Shark and Ray Touch Tank – where aquarium employees and their animal charges have in-depth educational interactions with the families. Aquarium employees involved volunteer their time to staff the stops on the tour.
“I love that the aquarium gives us the opportunity to offer this experience to them,” Tecci says, while watching Delia introduce Wally, her stuffed sea lion, to Cordova, the aquarium’s Alaskan Northern fur seal. “After seeing the kids go through so much in the hospital, to see them here enjoying everything and just having a good time with their families is priceless.”
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