Pedal cars, pirates help children conquer hospital fear

Surgery's not so scary when you get there in a kiddie car: 3-year-old Shahaf Rozenblum rolls to the operating room in style at Israel's Schneider Children’s Medical Center.Dror Katz / Today

When 3-year-old Shahaf Rozenblum arrived at the hospital for throat surgery, he was in a bad mood, his mom Meirav remembers. But a few minutes before the boy was to go to the operating room, staff at Israel’s Schneider Children’s Medical Center took him to a room in a kiddie pedal car.

Putting kids at ease leads to better health outcomes.Dror Katz / Today

“He saw those small cars and wanted to go in there,” Meirav Rozenblum says. “When it was time for the surgery the nurses came in and said it was OK to go in the car. He was so happy riding in the car he forgot everything about the surgery. He went with them and I walked behind. It was like a game for him. It was a really nice experience.”

At hospitals around the world, specialists are finding creative ways to make their youngest patients more comfortable and relaxed. The approach has a bigger payoff than simply keeping kids quiet and happy. Calmer, less traumatized kids come through the hospital experience healthier. They tend to need less pain medication, are less likely to need sedation for procedures and are less likely to react badly to chemicals needed for imaging tests, experts say.

Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh offers 13 “distraction” rooms in the radiology department, so children undergoing scans may board a pirate ship, blast off into space or dive to the bottom of the sea.

As the date grew near for her daughter’s bone scan, Deborah Bowman got more and more anxious, fearing the procedure would traumatize her little girl. But when they entered the bone scan room at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, both Bowman and her daughter were startled to see, instead of severe white walls, ocean murals and fish-filled bubble tubes scattered around the room.

The décor was so mesmerizing that both Bowman and little Jillian let out a sigh and started to relax.

"Pirate Island" is one of 13 specially themed radiology rooms at the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.Today

“It helped us both calm down,” Bowman says. “The different pictures and bubble tubes created a focal point so she could focus on that while the test was being performed. You could see a noticeable difference. She was relaxing.”

Each room has a different theme in the “adventure series,” says Kathleen Kapsin, administrative director of the department of radiology at the hospital. “What adventure they go on depends on the type of scan or treatment. So, for MRIs, there is the space ship. For CT, there is pirate island. For nuclear medicine, there is the jungle.

“What we’ve found out is that reducing anxiety in the child improves the quality of the exam because they aren’t moving, and it reduces the need for sedation.”

The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia also uses kid-friendly wagons to transport their little patients when possible.Today

The distraction isn’t limited to the visual. The Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh pipes in upbeat, calming music to the pediatric “adventure rooms,” and kids get aromatic patches to wear with scents like coconut or pine that mask scary hospital smells.

Because kids have such powerful imaginations, it isn’t hard to draw them into a world that has nothing to do with radiation or needles or surgery. “One little girl walked across the plank in pirate island and said very calmly to her mom, ‘Be very careful you don’t fall in the water,’” Kapsin remembers.

Sometimes, it doesn’t take much to take the fear out of the hospital experience.  

At Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, kids can take a pedal car or ride in a wagon to the OR.

Sometimes, kids are so excited about riding a pedal car (or tractor) through the hospital, they forget to be scared about their surgery. Allen S.Kramer TCH / Today

“For the smaller kids, the little cars and wagons seem to make it more fun, like they’re having an adventure,” says Dr. Laura Monson, an assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine and a pediatric plastic surgeon at the medical center. “So coming to the hospital isn’t a scary situation. Because it’s not so scary, they need less pain medication.”

The hospital takes a different approach with older children, Monson says. “We have specialists who work with them if they are anxious,” she says. “They get to see what’s going to happen so when they get to the OR, it’s not quite as scary.”

Creative ways to relax kids at the hospital, like fun cars and themed rooms, help them come through surgery and testing better. Allen S.Kramer TCH / Today

All of the effort “gives children a little sense of control in a place where they fell out of control,” says Diane Kaulen, a child life specialist at Texas Children’s.

Normally Kaulen helps other people’s kids through difficult times. But recently she was at the hospital in another role: as a patient’s mom.

Her 8-year-old daughter Andie was nervous about an upcoming surgery. Before the operation, one of Kaulen’s colleagues took Andie to a mock-up of the OR and gave her a run-through of what would happen. Seeing everything ahead of time calmed the little girl.

“It was a great way to help her relax and feel more at ease with the process,” Kaulen says.