The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto has been at the cutting edge of medicine for decades — in fact, since 2006 it has trained other institutions around the world to help them improve their care. And yet, what many people don’t know is that much of the physical infrastructure of the hospital is falling apart.
And that’s pushing SickKids to try some cutting-edge approaches to raising money to fix things.
“SickKids is a world-class institution, we offer world-class care,” says Dr. Michael-Alice Moga. “But you don’t realize that we’re doing it in an environment that, it’s not even neutral, it hurts us, it makes our job more difficult every single day.”
The hospital, spanning several blocks in downtown Toronto, was built in 1951. As a global leader in pediatric care, the hospital grew to house thousands of patients, an emergency room, intensive care units, as well as many out-patient clinics.
But the building is sorely outdated in many areas now, and units are overcrowded.
As a result, the staff has had to become creative in how they offer care, and families have to be patient with space limitations at some of the most trying moments of their lives.
To create awareness of the problem and raise funds to build a new hospital, SickKids partnered with Airbnb recently in a campaign that likely surprised people who came across it on the accommodations website.
For $2,392 per night, people could rent a bed in a mock SickKids Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) for a three-hour experience they’d share with three other guests. The cost represented the actual cost of running a single PICU bed for a night, and the money went to the hospital’s fundraising drive.
The experience sold out.
“SickKids has such a prestigious reputation, and to know and see first hand that they’re working in such hard conditions is really hard to believe,” says Loren Derrick, an employee of IBM who recently took part in the fundraiser with two of her colleagues.
As part of their experience, the group was met by the hospital’s chief medical officer, Dr. Lennox Huang, and they were escorted to an exact replica of the PICU for a completely immersive experience.
Participants were assigned to a bed, and provided with the profile of a patient and their medical condition which they were asked to assume for the evening.
Then they had a front-row seat to watch as nurses and doctors recreated what happens in the unit on a typical day.
The medical team also tended to a robotic infant in the room that experienced a seizure and even coded in front of the group.
The idea was to show how stressful the environment is for both staff and patients, and how that stress is exacerbated by the crowded, outdated nature of the space — all part of demonstrating why SickKids needs to build a new hospital.
The campaign seems to have struck a chord. Donations to the hospital rose more than 25 per cent while the PICU experience was being offered, and the Airbnb listing was viewed by 23,000 people.
“Part of the reason for doing this is to generate a little sympathy and get a bit of understanding of where we are today in this building, the newest part of which is well over 30 years [old] now,” says Huang.
During their stay the group heard audio recordings, played in the background, of real parents who’ve stayed in the hospital’s intensive care unit. A mother struggles to stay connected with her husband at home because of the building’s spotty wifi. Another mother urges her husband to stay home rather than stay with her and their very ill son because the room is so cramped. And families are given the awful news that their child will die.
They’re the types of conversations real patients and their families at the hospital experience around them regularly, due to overcrowding and cramped quarters.
The result is an experience that created no shortage of stress, something the doctors warned the participants about before their stay.
“This is an intense experience,” says Huang. “We call it the intensive care unit for a reason, and so if any of you through the course of this time start to feel incredibly stressed, incredibly worried, please let us know because the last thing we’d want to do is to get you so stressed that it then becomes a traumatic experience for you.”
Despite that warning, many participants were not prepared for what they saw.
Galvin Niu, also from IBM, had been assigned the patient profile of an 11-year-old boy who collapsed while playing soccer and needed CPR before being rushed to the hospital. He says he struggled with very real emotions while imagining what that would be like, and was struck by the lack of privacy in the unit.
“It was very overwhelming,” says Niu.
“It’s kind of difficult to get some rest, just because there’s always things happening around you. They just announced that some parents got some really bad news about their kid, you could hear the parents struggle and cry. I could just imagine what kids and parents go through not having any privacy whatsoever.”
That’s something the SickKids staff really wanted to emphasize. Throughout the three-hour stay, people are given bad news and see disturbing events, and those around them are asked to either leave the room or put on noise cancelling headphones to offer some privacy.
Staff here say in real life, all those scenarios do indeed happen.
When a privacy curtain can’t be pulled or a child can’t be shielded from an emergency occurring in the very next bed, social workers and support staff are brought in after the incident to talk through what the child might have heard or seen to prevent causing them trauma.
“There are uncomfortable moments,” says Moga. “And, you’re forced to have those in these tight bed spots in front of everyone else, even if that’s not the way you would like to do it.”
SickKids hopes to begin construction of a new hospital building this coming fall. Its five-year fundraising campaign, of which the Airbnb partnership was one component, aims to raise $1.3 billion by 2022.
The hospital says its latest efforts have brought it about 70 per cent of the way to its goal.
As for the PICU fundraiser, the hospital says while there are no firm plans, it hasn’t ruled out doing something similar to bring it closer to its fundraising target.