Few things are more difficult for a parent than having a child with a severe illness or medical emergency. Fortunately for those of us in the Pacific Northwest, there’s Oregon Health & Science University Doernbecher Children’s Hospital.
OHSU Doernbecher has been serving the Portland metropolitan area and surrounding communities since 1926. The children’s hospital annually treats approximately 175,000 children, 51 percent of whom are from the Portland area. The remaining 49 percent reside in rural Oregon and other states, namely Alaska, California and Washington.
From the moment you enter the front doors, it is evident that OHSU Doernbecher is not only child oriented but also family focused. There are no “visiting hours” because families are always welcome and each room is equipped with a bed for parents.
The walls are painted soothing colors; counters have been lowered to accommodate small patients; icons are used for navigation from department to department; and nurses and child life therapy specialists are engaged in medical play with patients to ease the fears of both children and parents—there’s no doubt that all of this contributes to OHSU Doernbecher’s great reputation.
“Every time I have entered Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, it is really overwhelming what a wonderful place this is for sick children. Just waiting in the lobby for an appointment, you will probably see people playing live music for the kids, a clown walking around, and dozens of activities and books with which the children can play. The wall art and the kid-friendly atmosphere sets it apart from any other hospital I’ve ever seen,” said local parent Morgan Hubbard.
For the past three years, OHSU Doernbecher has been ranked as one of the nation’s best children’s hospitals in U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals. It is a distinction that includes an arduous application process. Hospitals that apply are analyzed via data provided and reputation with other medical professionals around the country.
For 2012-13, OHSU Doernbecher received recognition in six specialties: cancer treatment, cardiology and heart surgery, diabetes and endocrinology, neonatology, neurology and neurosurgery, and orthopedics. Other widely recognized programs at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital include the neonatal ICU, and the specialty programs in epilepsy, fetal therapy, pediatric kidney disease and cystic fibrosis.
Though it is nice to be recognized for its achievements in excellent medicine, Dr. Stacy Nicholson, a pediatric oncologist and physician-in-chief at OHSU Doernbecher, believes the real benefit of the application and evaluation process of applying for the U.S. News & World Report distinction is learning areas of improvement.
“If a hospital is ranked higher than we are, we want to know what they’re doing better and emulate that. We’re proud of our level of care and quality programs, but in child medicine there is never a ‘good enough.’ This process serves as a tool to focus on areas of improvement,” said Dr. Nicholson.
Hubbard recalls sitting in the waiting room holding her infant daughter who was born premature and with an enlarged thyroid: “I could just glance around in any direction to see other babies who are in truly dire medical situations and hooked up to frighteningly futuristic machines. You know they’re getting the best care in the world, and that this hospital is equipped to deal with the worst things a baby and its parents have to go through.”
Speaking with other parents, what came through, even more than the facility or its reputation, was their favorable impression of the caregivers, nurses and physicians; how well their children were treated; and how much the staff cared for their families.
OHSU Doernbecher recruits the best pediatric medical practitioners in the nation and has more pediatric specialists in one hospital than any other in the region.
“Our staff could work anyplace in the country. The people are here because they care about kids,” says Dr. Nicholson. “The facility is great, but the people are the hospital. Everyone from the custodians and nursing assistants to therapists, physicians and nurses—all the people who work here care about children.”
In his 15-year practice at OHSU Doernbecher, Dr. Nicholson still recalls an incident that happened over a decade ago.
“I was on call one Saturday night, and we admitted an 11-year-old boy with what turned out to be a very dangerous form of leukemia. I came in to see him and his family about 10 p.m., and as I was preparing to go into his room, I noticed that he had exactly the same birthdate as one of my children. I was newly struck with how fragile health is and how one family is fortunate and another can suddenly find themselves facing a life-threatening illness. As I was discussing the leukemia with this young man and his family, I shared with them that one of my children had the same birthday – this established a deeper sense of trust and connection. Over the next few days, he had several procedures and started chemotherapy. Ultimately, he beat his leukemia and is now a young adult. This is why I come to work each and every day.”
For those who haven’t had a personal experience with Doernbecher, the name is still undoubtedly recognized. Doernbecher has been a part of the Portland metropolitan community since 1926 and receives much funding from individuals, organizations, foundations, corporations through philanthropic investments and grassroots efforts, and various community organizations and programs including Kids Making Miracles.
Kids Making Miracles began as a simple coin drive over 21 years ago. Today it has raised $8 million dollars, and hundreds of local kids participate in community fundraising for OHSU Doernbecher through their schools. Fundraising ranges from bake sales and selling Doernbecher Dollies to what one local high school calls the Doernbecher Challenge—a staff versus student basketball game tournament.
At the entrance to the hospital there is a miracle garden and the Kids Making Miracles eternal flame, which symbolizes, for patients, that there is always someone fighting for them.
Though Doernbecher has been lauded for many of its specialties and programs, one program that Dr. Nicholson is excited about is the Telemedicine Network, a program in which OHSU Doernbecher collaborates with other hospitals for consultations and treatment. Though 51 percent of the kids treated by OHSU Doernbecher are from the Portland metropolitan area, there are still many families who travel great distances for treatment, some to find that after a brief 30-minute consultation, they are being discharged and the time and travel to the hospital were unnecessary.
Rather than have these families travel needlessly with an ill child, OHSU Doernbecher doctors are able to see and speak with the child using two-way, audio-video communication equipment. Currently, telemedicine consultations are for pediatric intensive care and neonatal critical patients, with expansion to other services forthcoming in the next several years. “We can all but touch them, and then if they do need to come to Doernbecher, transport can be arranged immediately. When they get here there is already a doctor who is on their case and working treatments. Both the child and parents are familiar with the doctor before they get to the hospital,” said Dr. Nicholson.
The OHSU Telemedicine Network at Doernbecher has served more than 200 patients since it began in 2007. Current communities that are part of the Telemedicne Network are Astoria, Coos Bay, Eugene, McMinnville, Medford, Roseburg, Silverton and Salem.
Through all of its recognition, various accolades and programs, it is clear that OHSU Doernbecher’s number one priority is doing what is best for children and their families. No doubt this will continue to be the case as telemedicine reaches more and more hospitals and OHSU Doernbecher continues to learn and strive to serve not only the Portland community but the surrounding Northwest communities as well. In the future, OHSU Doernbecher’s staff will continue to work as child advocates, educating the next generation to make healthy choices and working with other hospitals through the OHSU Doernbecher Telemedicine Network to provide the best care for kids.
Kristin Donahue is a freelance writer and a high school English living in Portland with her husband and two young sons.