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New Space-Age Surroundings for Sickest Pediatric Patients

By Sally McLain


A completely redesigned pediatric intensive care unit has opened at Columbia-Presbyterian’s Babies & Children’s Hospital, bringing to life a facility that uses space-age technology and an astronomy theme to care for and treat seriously ill children. The new unit, which opened in June 1998, draws on the images and history associated with space to provide a setting in which children can feel both a sense of safety and wonder.

Dr. Howard Zucker, assistant professor of pediatrics and of anesthesiology and pediatric director of the intensive care unit, says the project was three years in the making. The background research--visiting other PICUs around the country, discussing possible themes, assessing the needs of children’s families, and even looking at the unit from the perspective of a child--all worked together to transform the facility into one of the most visually and technologically advanced in the country.

The new unit expands the hospital’s pediatric ICU from 14 to 27 beds. Dr. Zucker, who worked during college on a research project for NASA, says the theme is based on four basic concepts of the space program: team work, technology on the cutting edge, humanism, and the search for understanding. “These themes are also basic to medical care.” Patient rooms feature stars on the ceilings and rooms named for planets and spacecraft. The remodeled unit uses space-age technology and materials to support the hospital’s position as a regional pediatric trauma center, a designation it received in September 1997.

Among its many features the unit boasts private rooms for children offering a colorful, comforting environment and creatively planned wiring and tubing that is hidden from view. “When we were planning the space, I laid down in a patient bed and looked around to see what kids see,” says Dr. Zucker. “I tried to think about what would make things better for them when they were laying there looking up after surgery.” That’s why, he says, special attention was paid to decorations on the ceilings and soffits. The ceiling tiles are engraved with shooting stars and other galactic shapes. The soffits over the doorways have been decorated with miniature astronauts in various colors.

Moonwalk MuralThe rooms are also set up for electrocardiogram monitoring, and wiring was installed for future hookup to computers that will allow for “paperless charting,” or computerized record-keeping. The wires and cables are hidden behind headboards.

Parents and families also were considered in the new design. “When you’re in a hospital late at night, you see how families are affected when they are there because of a sick child,” says Dr. Zucker. “So, we put in sleeper chairs in each room, showers and lockers, and reception rooms with garden views. It’s the little things that make it more comfortable for them.” A solarium room, which overlooks the medical center garden and offers a view of the Hudson River out one window and the skyline of Manhattan out another, is a quiet place for families who need a moment to themselves.

Making the unit nicer for the medical staff was also a key goal of the new design. “The staff and doctors needed more space to move around. More space for everyone lowers anxiety and stress levels,” says Dr. Zucker. Although on a busy day the unit can be filled with as many as 25 staff members, patients, their families, and even medical students on rounds, the unit is surprisingly quiet because of the thoughtful design. “The old ICU was much more noisy.” Computers at every other bedside for physicians and versatile lighting systems permitting a broad range of bedside procedures were installed. Eliminating a central nursing station permits nurses to spend more time at each bedside, and sliding doors between rooms allow nurses to care for two patients with ease.

The pediatric ICU treats a range of patients, from those with complex congenital heart disease to young organ transplant recipients to children recovering after neurological surgery to separated, formerly conjoined twins. The additional beds will allow the hospital to care for even more children referred from local, national, and international hospitals.

Visitors and patients to the new unit are greeted at the elevator lobby by large photographic murals created by digital photo illustrator Barry Blackman. Alcoves where children wait to be transferred out of the unit for tests and procedures allow for privacy.

The new unit is officially named the Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. Pediatric Intensive Care Unit in honor and recognition of the company’s gift that made the renovation possible. The $4.1 million gift was made up of voluntary employee contributions, which provided almost half of the $9.5 million needed for the project. The remaining funds came from other philanthropic donations.

Three American astronauts, including one of P&S’s most famous graduates, were on hand for the opening celebration. “It’s like a spacecraft here but it’s more advanced,” said Story Musgrave’64. Dr. Musgrave praised the space theme used in the decor of the new unit. “Space lifts your spirits. It will give kids a sense of meaning and hope. I’m convinced it will help them get on a road to wellness.”

Joining Dr. Musgrave in the ribbon-cutting ceremony were fellow astronauts Dr. Byron Lichtenberg and Dr. Norman Thagard. Dr. Musgrave spent a portion of his medical training at Babies & Children’s Hospital under the direction of Dr. Hattie Alexander, the late professor of pediatrics. “She taught me that kids are not just small adults--they’re incredibly special,” he said.


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