The nurses on the 20th floor were the first to see them. "Oh my goodness," declared Colleen Forrester, 29, a nurse dressed in green scrubs, who pointed to the windows. Other nurses came to look and laughed. Were the children strong enough to come see?
Soon, parents and nurses were leading kids out of their rooms. The children were small and frail-looking. Most were undergoing treatment for cancer and other serious disorders.
But on this cold April morning, they had a precious moment of distraction.
The window washers at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago were dressed as superheroes. All morning, Captain America, Batman and Spider-Man swung on ropes outside the windows — waving to the children, posing for pictures — in what is fast becoming a semiannual tradition.
"Wow. They are so high up," said a wide-eyed Mason Turngren, 8, whose colon is failing and who has been in and out of the hospital the last four years. On Tuesday, he was exhausted from the most recent battery of tests and had to be coaxed to the window. Once there, he was transfixed. Mason waved to the heroes and put his hand on the glass to exchange a high-five with Captain America.
That moment meant a lot to Mason's mom, Dusty Turngren, 42. "Just to see a smile on his face," she said. The hospital had offered other events in recent days, including a visit from a therapy dog, but none had aroused Mason's interest. Then he heard that Spider-Man was outside.
"Superheroes are his favorite," said his mother, "especially Spider-Man." Mason spent a half an hour at the windows.
The superhero window washers made their first appearance at Lurie last year after Phil Kujawa, 46, the foreman of the crew, saw a news report about a similar event in another city. He mentioned the idea to his bosses at Chicago-based Corporate Cleaning and quickly got the green light.
Then Kujawa had the little issue of getting his crew to don the capes and tights. "At first, they were like, 'I am not wearing that,'" Kujawa recalled.
He emphasized how much it would mean to the kids, and eventually won over his crew.
Each window washer, Kujawa said, was carefully selected for his experience and skill. (Because of the architectural details on the building, Lurie Children's is not an easy building to clean, he said.) What's more, each man had to look like a hero.
Roberto Duran, 32, with a chiseled jaw and clean-cut good looks, would make a perfect Captain America, his bosses thought. Gerardo Vaca, 36, with a short, athletic build, seemed more a Spider-Man type.
And Pedro Castro, 45, with a bushy mustache, was chosen to become Batman "as a little bit of a joke," Kujawa said with a laugh. "We wanted to see what he would look like in a costume."
Now, he said, his team revels in the chance to assume the super identities.
"They smile and wave their hands," Vaca said of the kids. "They are so happy. I like [dressing up] because I like to see their happy faces."
Evelina London Children's Hospital in England might have been the first to ask its window washers to don tights and capes, according to news reports. After photos of the superhero window washers hit the Internet a few years ago, the idea spread to children's hospitals around the world.
Doctors at Lurie believe — even if they can't cite scientific studies to prove it — the happiness that is generated by "Superhero Day" can help children heal. "There is power in laughter and joy and excitement," said Dr. Stewart Goldman, a neuro-oncologist at Lurie. "I can't quote you a trial, but I know in my heart that it helps."
The heroes swung back and forth in front of patients' windows, lingering outside each floor, before lowering themselves again. Everywhere they went, they created a stir of excitement.
Ricky Canas, 27, stood away from the crowd with his 10-year-old sister, Angelina, a tiny girl with a tall IV pole. She got sick in February; doctors found a tumor in her liver. The days since have been long and terrifying. But Angelina has been a trouper, through the biopsy and surgery and now in the run-up to chemotherapy.
"I always liked superheroes," Canas said. He looked down at his sister, and gently touched her delicate chin. It was clear that Canas thought his sister was the real hero of the day. "Someone told me once, 'We don't have to find heroes. We can be our own.'"