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Lucy Schofield 6 plays Lurie Children's Hospital Thursday December 13 2012. I Stacie Scott~Sun-Times Medi

Lucy Schofield, 6, plays at the Lurie Children's Hospital on Thursday, December 13, 2012. I Stacie Scott~Sun-Times Media

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Can you mend a child’s ailing heart with bamboo? Would a real fire truck help? And how effective are small anthropomorphic birds in the healing process?

When the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago opened last June, attention focused on its staggering specifics -- the $855 million price tag, its 23 stories, the tallest children’s hospital in the world, built from scratch steps from the old Water Tower.

But if you walk through, floor by floor, the hospital reveals a hidden world -- both of small details, tiny figures tucked inside box dioramas a foot off the floor, to huge displays, such as an enormous mother whale and her calf suspended from the 40-foot-tall entrance ceiling. Elements you might not notice at first, like that real door off a Norwegian submarine just to the left of the aquarium, to things you can’t miss, like the grove of living bamboo -- all designed to distract, amuse, comfort and, just possibly, help heal the sick children receiving treatment here.

With a miniscule art budget -- $900,000, about 1/10 of one percent of the hospital’s cost -- from the start, Lurie realized it had to do something unconventional. What it did was enlist Chicago’s great cultural institutions to help create an environment different than any other hospital’s.

“Most hospitals have an art budget and get prints and posters and frame stuff and put it on the wall,” said Lisa Mulvaney, coordinator, creative arts program at Lurie. “We said, let’s take that small budget and see if these partners will work with us. We engaged the 23 different organizations and divided them up.”

Each floor has a theme, built around an animal host -- birds, zebras, lions, bears -- and an welcoming tableau when you step off the elevators, such as a computerized screen where children can have virtual butterflies cluster upon them, or a mural of stars, or animals, plus places to play -- giant climbing eggs, the cab from a fire truck. The themes extend throughout the corridors, augmented by “discovery boxes,” little 3D scene set at the level of a crawling toddler.

Their community partners are a who’s who of the Chicago cultural community, each volunteering their efforts: The Art Institute and the Adler Planetarium, the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Chicago Symphony, the Field Museum and the Joffrey.

“It seemed like an incredible project, an oportunity to collaborate with another arts organization,” said Jon Weber, director of learning programs at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which worked with Lookingglass Theatre to create the visual version of “Peter and the Wolf” on the hospital’s 15th floor.

“What we did with ‘Peter and the Wolf’ that we’re really proud of is that it features a child hero confronting fear and anxiety and triumphing,” said Weber. “Bravery is Peter’s guide.”

During planning, the CSO went so far as to mount a performance of “Peter and the Wolf,” with Lookingglass to help generate ideas.

The life-sized whales -- the mother is 31 feet long, the calf 13 -- offered their own challenge, because the Shedd wanted to donate them several years before Lurie was ready to receive them. Another local institution stepped in.

“We hadn’t even broke ground yet and they wanted us to take these whales,” said Mulvaney. “The Field Museum said that they would store them in one of their vaults for three years. We saved the whales, because they would have been destroyed.”

It’s a hospital, so infection is a concern -- that’s why, if you go to the bamboo grove in the two-story atrium on the 11th floor lobby, the water which looks like its circulating around each hand-placed colored marble is actually sealed behind them, to avoid the chance of Legionaire’s disease, which propagates in water.

The hospital also deliberately doesn’t have artwork in its 288 privage rooms, because it wouldn’t do to have a bear in the room of a child who’s afraid of bears. Instead, there are three round cubbies intend to display comforting treasures brought from home, like Mimi, the stuffed penguin who is helping Gareth Everett, 4, battle cystic fibrosis.

“That’s his best friend, Mimi,” says his mother, Annie Everett, standing above the sleeping boy in his room. “Mimi goes everywhere. She goes into surgery with him.”

Everett can’t say enough about the hospital.

“Isn’t it awesome?” she says. “I was overwhelmed. I think we walked around on every floor with our jaw dropped. It was so much color.” Having animal-themed floors lets the kids know where they belong. “He can’t count to 21, but he knows he’s the zebra floor. You can touch everything. The elevators make sounds.”

In what is perhaps the single masterstroke of genius in the entire hospital, some elevators are studded with low buttons that honk horns and make other noises, or light up lights, for children who universallly love to push buttons in elevators anyway. Other elevators have colorful growth charts that -- in the runner up grace note -- err on the side of making sick children taller.

No detail was too small. The air vents feature schools of fish and sinuous plants, designed by Aquamoon, a local interior design firm formed by former Shedd employees.

“The prior ones looked like prison bars,” said Bryan Schuetze, the owner of Aquamoon, part of an overall aquatic theme.

The hospital is beautiful and perks up the patients, parents and staff, is without question. But does it help the kids get better? That’s something Jenifer Cartland, who runs the child health data lab, is looking into.

“There’s been a lot of research in the past 15 years looking into the role of nature and just the physical design of spaces in promoting healing and health for patients in hospitals,” she says.

“Our design team was very aware of that.”

Next month she begins a three part study that examines how the Lurie environment helps patients, and whether they in fact heal quicker and have a more pleasant experience because of it.

“Now we know, when it comes to children’s hospitals, we need spaces for parents to get away, to gather themselves and be ready to make more decisions in the care of their children,” she says. “And we need spaces for children to get away from it all and engage and play and get distracted.”

That certainly is the case for Gareth Everett.

“We come here every eight or nine weeks,” says his mother Annie. “We’re here a lot. And we have to promise a before and after visit to the fire truck.”



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