Pittsburgher of the Year: Mario Lemieux
Mario Lemieux saved hockey in Pittsburgh — twice. Now his biggest goal is saving lives.
(page 1 of 3)
Photo © 2012 Pittsburgh Penguins/Joe Sargent
Mario Lemieux is wearing a hard hat. It’s a late autumn morning, and outside the enormous glass window overlooking Pittsburgh’s East End, the sun is wading lazily in a rolling ocean of red-orange foliage. Lemieux doesn’t give the dramatic scene a second look. Inside, he’s surrounded by possibility — his own curious sandbox. The new Mario Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers at UPMC’s Hillman Cancer Center is still a construction zone. Exposed I-beams hang above Lemieux’s head, electrical wires cover the floor like spilled spaghetti, and the fellow manning a circular saw in the corner of the room is conducting an impromptu fireworks show with sparks and sawdust.
In its own Pittsburgh way, it’s a more beautiful scene than the postcard outside the window. In order to understand why Lemieux is here, at 47, standing in sawdust instead of on a private beach in Tahiti, you need to understand the man in his true element: the golf course. A few years back, he had sunk a hole-in-one on the eighth green at Secession Golf Club in South Carolina. After the revelry died down and the group teed off at the next hole, Lemieux’s close friend Tom Grealish asked where he’d put the ball. Lemieux shrugged and pointed to the fairway. “I just hit it,” he said.
“Anyone else would have run off the eighth green and had the ball framed,” Grealish says. “Mario hit it off the No. 9 tee.”
Lemieux and Foundation board members take in the view on the outdoor roofdeck at the Mario Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers. Photo by Martha Rial.
Back at the center, it’s not exactly the social event of the season. Lemieux doesn’t do those. There are no TV cameras, keynote speakers, corporate sponsors or Botox-infused socialites. It’s just Lemieux, his wife, Nathalie, the Mario Lemieux Foundation’s board of directors and the project’s excitable lead architect, David Wells of Radelet McCarthy Polletta, whose guided tour of the state-of-the-art facility borders on sermon. Wells fills in all the gaps — that empty wall, for instance, will house a giant 70-inch Sky Factory ultra-high-def display projecting soothing nature images, like a breezy beach, to comfort patients recovering from chemotherapy sessions.
The idea of the center being a place for emotional, and not just physical, healing was close to Lemieux’s heart. When he was shockingly diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1993 at age 28, fear became Lemieux’s greatest adversary. While walking through the near-finished patient rooms at the center, the memories come flooding back.
“Finding out you have cancer,” Lemieux begins to say, then trails off. “Fear is a big part of it. I reflect back on the times when I was getting treatments every day. It’s not an easy thing, when you have cancer, to get up in the morning knowing that you’re facing a radiation treatment. So we wanted this space to be as comfortable as possible.”
The foundation, which was established shortly after Lemieux received his Hodgkin’s diagnosis, donated $3 million for the center’s creation. Set to open this month, the facility is expected to treat more than 25,000 patients for leukemia, lymphoma, multiple myeloma and other blood cancers annually. But it’s the children who always seem to be at the forefront for Lemieux.
“When you talk to kids who are very young and very sick — that’s when it touches you the most,” says Lemieux, who routinely calls young cancer patients on the phone to offer them encouragement, sometimes with surprising results. “The kids who are 5 and 6 years old, they haven’t seen me play. So I’ve taken a backseat to our two superstars, Crosby and Malkin, now in that respect.”
Lemieux flashes a big grin.
“Hopefully their parents have told them about me.”
A child plays with Wally the Therapy Dog at The Children's Home of Pittsburgh & Lemieux Family Center
When those parents undoubtedly do recount stories of Le Magnifique, young cancer patients certainly have a hero they can relate to. Lemieux had been on a historic goal-scoring pace in 1993 and was coming off back-to-back Stanley Cup championships when he started to notice something peculiar while he was shaving. A lump in his throat that he’d ignored for months had grown to the point that he started catching it with his razor. Upon telling his doctor, the lump was immediately removed and sent for testing. A few days later, Lemieux received the toughest news of his life. Cancer.
“The first few weeks after the diagnosis,” Lemieux says, “boy, those were tough times. To try to stay positive and think about the future and not dwell in the present, that can be a really hard thing to do.”
Every day for six weeks, Lemieux would lie completely still on a table and absorb energy-draining radiation treatments. The routine was brutal.
“Those were the mullet days, so it was hard to tell, but Mario had lost some of his hair, and he had radiation burns on the back of his neck,” remembers Grealish. The radiation eventually destroyed his ability to taste food. Once, while out to dinner with Grealish, Lemieux asked the waiter for pepper on his steak capriccio. When Lemieux remembered he couldn’t taste anything at all, he just chuckled.
For hours upon hours, all Lemieux could do was gaze up at the ceiling — that big white slate of nothingness that projects hopes and fears more vividly than any television ever could. He would stare up into the void and think about one thing: his return.
“My last radiation treatment was at 8 in the morning,” he remembers. “There was no way I wasn’t going to play that night. After sitting on my butt for six weeks, I was on a plane to Philadelphia that afternoon for our game. That feeling of sitting in the locker room and lacing up my skates again …”
Lemieux trails off. He’s somewhere else, perhaps remembering the standing ovation he received from the crowd at the Philadelphia Spectrum, the very fans that even booed Santa Claus.
>> Continue reading: The Landlord