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Fun and games — and care Children's Specialized CEO keeps needs of young patients at the forefront

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As president and CEO of Children's Specialized Hospital, one of the seemingly impossible daily tasks faced by Amy Mansue and her staff is remembering that the patients in each room are kids.

"We live our values, and part of that value is fun, because you are a children's hospital," she said. "No matter how sick that child is, no matter how damaged or destroyed, or how the cancer has eaten, (the staff) are still looking for ways to engage those kids and have fun."

From the bold-colored walls of the New Brunswick facility to annual participation in the Snapple Bowl — a high school football game that raises money for Children's Specialized's long-term care facility in Mountainside — fun and positive thinking are part of the healing process for the patients and their families.

"Most people don't know who Children's Specialized is — they don't need to know unless they have a kid with disabilities, and then we know them by name, we know everything about them, we know all of the issues, birthdays," Mansue said.

Mansue says she feels honored to be trusted with people's kids, and is energized by that responsibility during what she calls "the most vulnerable time" for families.

"Their child has been through something traumatic, they lived — and now, you have to figure out how to put it all back together again," Mansue said. "It's really humbling that parents and families let you into their lives in that way. … It's not just about delivery of care; it's also about caring for that family that's now going to have to take this child home."

Mansue has made a career of fighting for people with disabilities, whether through her role as the CEO of the largest children's rehabilitation hospital in the country, as a lobbyist or, in the early 1990s, as a policy adviser to then-Gov. James Florio. Her mission has been clear to Donna Leusner since the two women met, while Mansue was working for ARC of New Jersey and Leusner was a reporter for The Star-Ledger.

"She has been an advocate from the very first day I met her for people with disabilities, that's the way I've known her for 25 years," said Leusner, now communications director for the Department of Health and Senior Services. "She's dedicated her life to it … to maintain that passion for 25 years. I think it just speaks volumes about who she is."

Mansue is most animated when discussing the patients and the staff at the hospital, but when it comes to the business side of running a children's hospital, she does not use kid gloves. Since she started in 2003, the hospital has increased its volume by 6,000 patients, and grew its budget to $100 million. Mansue fine-tuned her ability to balance needs and budgets while serving in several different state government roles in the past.

"People say 'You're a social worker — how can you do that job?' and all I do all day long is broker and try to listen to people and solve problems, which is what social workers do," Mansue said. "They try to put you with the resources you need to be able to get better — so in some ways, it was the perfect training to do this job."

One of the largest projects Mansue has brokered for the hospital is, in conjunction with Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, creating a developmental behavioral pediatrics fellowship program — the only program in the state and one of 34 nationally.

"It's such a pleasure to work with somebody who gets it," said Dr. Frank Castello, medical director for all of Children Specialized's locations. Castello said Mansue "puts her money where her mouth is" and gives the go-ahead on important projects, then finds the dollars to fund the programs.

"Before we had heard the results (of a grant application), Amy said 'Go ahead and get started. We might as well get it going whether it's funded or not, because it's an important program,'" Castello said. "Somebody comes up with a good idea, and we all agree it's a good idea — we're able to move forward with these kinds of projects."

Like others in the world of health care delivery, Mansue is fully invested in the conversation about the future of health care costs and reimbursement, but she's also using her capital credentials to put Children's Specialized at the forefront of caring for autism, a growing concern for those in her industry.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in late March that roughly one in every 88 children in the United States — and one in 49 in New Jersey — is on the autism spectrum, meaning they have a developmental disability characterized by social, communication and behavioral challenges. Mansue understands that the hospital changed rapidly after the polio epidemic in the 1940s, and must again change rapidly to meet the growing needs of the autism community.

"When I was growing up, nobody had an elevator — if somebody had a wheelchair, they had to come in through the loading dock," Mansue said. "Every building has an elevator — we take it for granted now. … When I see a child with autism, what's possible for them? What is it that we could create that doesn't exist today that could make them fully participate in ways we can't imagine?"

E-mail to: mcaliendo@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @MCaliendo33

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