While kids play, parents keep medical appointments, visit sick

March 1, 2011

As the mother of two young children, Jennifer Schultz puts a high priority on setting aside quality time to share with family members. So when her mother, Dolly Anderson, was diagnosed with lung cancer last spring, Schultz fretted constantly about how to spend time with her at the hospital without neglecting the needs of her son, Cameron, 5, and daughter Ashlyn, 2.

She needn't have worried though, because two philanthropists and Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland, Ore., were one step ahead of her. In April 2010, the hospital opened My Little Waiting Room, a free drop-in child care center. While Schultz supported her mother as she underwent radiation and chemotherapy, My Little Waiting Room staffers showered Cameron and Ashlyn with attention, engaging them in art projects, encouraging imaginative dress-up play and providing healthy snacks.

"With so much worry about my mom, I felt so grateful not to have to worry about where my children were and who was taking care of them as well," says Schultz, 26, of Wilsonville, Ore.

Recently, Anderson was readmitted to the hospital with incurable, metastatic cancer, and Schultz found herself once again turning to My Little Waiting Room for help with child care.

"The time I have left with my mother is precious; I want to be able to help her with the end of her journey," says Schultz. "Because of My Little Waiting Room, I am able to spend three to four hours a day with her while the children play. After lunch, they can visit Nana for awhile too before we head home."

Power moms
Amy Paterson, 38 and a public relations specialist, empathizes completely with Schultz's situation. Four years ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent months of aggressive treatment, juggling her medical needs with caring for her toddler son. Once her health was restored, she was determined to find a way to help other families cope with similar circumstances.

Together with her friend Melissa Moore, also a public relations specialist and young mother, she hit upon the idea of a drop-in child care center on-site at a hospital. "We were well aware that our gym, certain retail stores and even a grocery store in our area provided child care and thought, 'Why not the hospital?'" says Paterson.

The pair approached Dick Clark, executive director of Providence St. Vincent Medical Foundation, with their idea. He, in turn, contacted Alex Jackson, chief operating officer of Providence St. Vincent Medical Center.

"My first reaction was, 'Wow, this makes all kinds of sense,'" recalls Jackson. "As a working dad and health care professional, I connected immediately with the concept. Our mission is to care for all, the poor and vulnerable, with compassionate service. To me this is the epitome of compassionate service — helping patients and their families with child care for whatever length of time it is required, regardless of cost."

Once Providence agreed to partner on the project, development became a true collaboration. Paterson and Moore created a nonprofit venture, researching child care options at hospitals nationwide, writing grants, soliciting donations and doing some creative fund-raising. At one point, Paterson appeared as a "Super Pink Power Mom" in an ad campaign for a breast cancer survivors' program sponsored by Bright Starts, a baby gear company, and she received a $30,000 grant for her effort. Another time, the two conducted an online baby shower to help equip the child care center.

Meanwhile, Providence St. Vincent Medical Foundation solicited charitable support through its own fund-raising efforts, reaching out to corporations, longtime benefactors, even employees and schoolchildren. It provided $200,000 in start-up costs to remodel a 1,000-square-foot space in the hospital lobby — near the gift shop, coffee shop and pharmacy — and provided funding for two years. It contracted with Volunteers of America Oregon, a community not-for-profit that provides child care in a Portland family court building, to operate the licensed center.

"Because we found very little to model the project after during our research, we wanted to create a center that other hospitals could learn from," says Paterson.

So far, My Little Waiting Room has a big track record of success. Since opening, it has served 3,000 child visits — an average of 300 per month — delivering more than 5,500 hours of child care, says Paterson.

Program coordinator Melissa Young, one of three full-time teachers at My Little Waiting Room, says response to the center, which can handle 15 children, ages 6 weeks to 10 years, at a time, has been overwhelmingly positive.

"The younger kids love the Montessori approach we take. We have sensory tables filled with things like beans and macaroni noodles, a pretend kitchen, dress-up area, trucks and trains, and lots of building and art materials," she says. "Older kids enjoy all the craft projects and board games."

Toppling a barrier to care 
Parents, Young says, are very enthusiastic about the service, regardless of whether they choose to pay the suggested $5 donation per visit or not.

"We have parents who come for physical therapy now who put off services for years because of child care logistics," she says. "We take care of siblings when parents need to visit newborns in the NICU, or when another child needs an MRI. And of course we help families when a parent or grandparent needs surgery or treatment for a chronic disease."

Based on its popularity, My Little Waiting Room has decided to expand its hours. The center, which had been open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, started staying open until 5 p.m. last month.

And as Paterson had hoped, other hospitals, including the Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, are beginning to investigate offering similar child care services based on My Little Waiting Room.

"This fits so well into most hospital missions. It offers parents peace of mind, whether they are at the medical center for routine appointments or because a family member is facing a health care crisis," says Paterson. "In either case, it eases the way for patients and their families."


Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
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