For a heart-transplant patient and her family, Pittsburgh’s food helps heal
April 8, 2015 12:00 AM
By Renee Sklarew
What do you do when your life becomes chaos and you’re far from home? Find a good place to eat, of course.
Almost 15 years ago, my husband, parents, two daughters and I took up temporary residence in Pittsburgh. We were there because my 4-year-old needed a heart transplant.
The process required we live near Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital while we waited eight days for her new heart and then remain in Oakland during her three months of recovery. Ever since we’ve associated your beautiful City of Bridges with the rebirth of our daughter, Allie, who received her life-saving surgery on Aug. 8, 2000. This August, amazing her family and her doctors, she heads off to college.
Although it may sound strange, the one thing that improved our mental and physical health during that difficult time was eating. Admittedly, food should not be a top priority when your child is fighting to survive, but those Oakland restaurants quickly became a comforting source of sustenance. We especially appreciated friendly places such as Union Grill, Atwood Deli, Dave & Andy’s Homemade Ice Cream and especially Allie’s favorite, Lulu’s Noodles. We often brought her these tasty meals rather than dine in hospital-style.
While living in Pittsburgh that summer of 2000, these fine establishments did more than feed our stomachs; they fed our souls. Now whenever we return to Pittsburgh for her annual biopsy, Allie requests a meal at Lulu’s Noodles. She’s not allowed to eat or drink the morning of her procedure, so she likes to fill up the night before on Lulu’s dumplings, stir-fries and creamy fruit smoothies. Sitting in that clattering dining room surrounded by black-and-white photos of people draped in noodles is decidedly soothing to her. Lulu’s is a family tradition, one we believe helps her to heal.
Pittsburgh has several other neighborhoods that sustained us in the months we lived there. Another requirement of each visit is to wander the streets of Little Italy, over the Bloomfield Bridge (now Children’s Hospital has moved near that charming neighborhood). On festive occasions — such as celebrating a biopsy that turns up “zero rejection” — we dine at the Church Brew Works. How fitting for us parents to toast her health in a church.
We also never miss an outing on the Strip. We have our favorite stops — picking up a bag of Enrico’s biscottis, stopping for coffee at La Prima, shopping at Pennsylvania Macaroni Co, and departing with a Jimmy and Nino Sunseri eggplant sub.
We never tire of sightseeing in Oakland, either. We feel inspired whenever we tour Carnegie museums, enchanted by the view from the Cathedral of Learning, and most beneficial of all, we are calmed by the gardens at Phipps Conservatory. This sublime botanical wonderland was the first place that Allie walked after her surgery. From three months of lying in a hospital bed, her leg muscles were severely atrophied. But the desire to pump some water in the Children’s Garden electrified her enough to test those scrawny legs. Eureka! She could stand again. I’ll never forget that moment. So, we are out-of-town members of Phipps, giving us privileges of free entry whenever we visit and discounts in its lovely cafe.
Our family returned to Pittsburgh on March 19. Our first stop that evening was Lulu’s Noodles, and as usual, the restaurant was filled with hungry college students. After a satisfying meal, we ventured into new territory — Walnut Street in Shadyside — where we scored a table at The Yard. Allie ordered the S’mores Fondue for dessert, while her dad and I sampled local brews.
The next morning, her biopsy at Children’s Hospital turned up no rejection. Despite the relief we felt from hearing the good news, this process drains us both emotionally and physically, and if it weren’t for the gracious Pittsburgh residents we always encounter, we would probably dread these trips. Lucky for us, the best pediatric-heart-transplant center in the nation just happens to be in a town with great food.
Renee Sklarew is a food and travel writer in Washington, D.C.: Follow her on Twitter @DCWriterMom.