Alumna brings healing art to Children's Hospital of Chicago

A two-story indoor bamboo garden, art that promises more to discover, no matter how many times you look.

Touches like these helped make Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago a healing environment for all when it opened on June 9.

One Erikson alumna was the organizing force behind it.

Image: Lisa Morgan Mulvaney, M.Ed. ’95

Lisa Morgan Mulvaney, M.Ed. ’95

Lisa Morgan Mulvaney, M.Ed. ’95, began her work more than four years ago when Children’s Memorial Hospital decided to move to a new $855-million campus in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood and become Lurie Children’s Hospital.

As the coordinator of the Creative Arts Program and a certified child life specialist, Mulvaney recruited 23 community partners — ranging from Chicago Children’s Museum to Redmoon Theater — and challenged them to develop artwork for Lurie Children’s Hospital that encourages healing and celebrates the vibrancy of Chicago’s cultural organizations.

A child life specialist — a professional trained to help children and their families understand and cope with the hospital environment — might not seem to be the first choice to head an arts program. Mulvaney, however, found it the perfect fit.

“My background in child life helped me understand kids’ needs from a developmental and psychosocial perspective, and my years of experience working in a health care environment taught me about the importance of collaborating with clinicians and hospital staff,” she says. “I was then able to work with all the groups to reach consensus on what is appropriate for a pediatric health care environment. My entire career really led me to this point.”

Each community partner was paired with a hospital floor or space and asked to create several types of artwork. On each in-patient floor, a large entrance display welcomes children and families. In the nurses’ stations, dioramas, or “discovery boxes,” are embedded at children’s eye level to engage children while the adults talk over the desk. Along the corridor walls, series of photos or illustrations, called “paths of discovery,” entice children and visitors to continue on — five-foot segment after five-foot segment — to discover what the next segment shows. Beyond the delight of discovery, the “paths” help people find their way around the hospital and can even serve a therapeutic purpose. The images encourage children working with physical therapists to complete longer and longer distances down the corridor.

The several hundred works of art created by community partners had to be responsive to the unique needs of a pediatric hospital. They needed to meet strict architectural codes and infection control standards, and stand up to frequent cleaning. Aesthetically, the art had to be appealing to people of all ages and backgrounds and not over-stimulate or intimidate potentially vulnerable children and families. The artwork also had to communicate hope, healing, and humor, while allowing for fear and sadness.

“There were so many things to consider, but all the community partners were up to the challenge,” Mulvaney says. “And the good news is that our partnerships won’t end when the last piece of art is installed.”

Mulvaney hopes community partners will continue to play an active role in the hospital by providing performances, workshops, and other programming for patients, families, and staff.

Bringing kids’ voices into the boardroom

Image: Lisa Morgan Mulvaney, M.Ed. ’95

In addition to her work with the creative arts program, Mulvaney founded and facilitates the Kids’ Advisory Board, a group of current patients between 11 and 18 years old who advise the hospital on patient care. The board was an integral part of planning for Lurie Children’s Hospital, meeting with staff, administration, and consultants throughout the process.

“It’s been incredible to give kids the opportunity to come back to the hospital as active participants,” says Mulvaney. “They are so proud to help shape the hospital and represent so many kids like them who face incredible

Many of the board’s suggestions were built into Lurie Children’s Hospital, including a hair salon where patients can have their hair washed if their medical condition makes showering difficult. A seemingly minor amenity like this can make a big difference for sick children, according to Mulvaney. The board’s suggestions to create destination spots and bring nature into the hospital led to the Crown Sky Garden, a 5,000-square-foot indoor bamboo garden, where children and their families can go to relax.

The Kids’ Advisory Board, as well as staff, clinicians, and the Family Advisory Board, also reviewed all concepts for the community partners’ artwork.

Discovering the field of child life

It wasn’t until after college that Mulvaney discovered the field of child life. The sociology major’s first job was working in Children’s Memorial’s human resources department.

“I was always interested in hospitals, children, and the psychological aspects of childhood,” she says, “but I didn’t know that they coexisted until I discovered the child life department at Children’s.”

Mulvaney volunteered in child life and at child care centers for several years before her desire to become a child life specialist led her to Erikson and an internship at the University of Chicago Children’s Hospital. She subsequently joined the hospital’s child life staff and founded a Kids’ Advisory Board, as well as a bereavement program for children and adults. The board contributed to planning for what is now Comer Children’s Hospital at the University of Chicago. In 2006, Mulvaney returned to Children’s Memorial.

“The reward of being able to help create an incredible, healing place like Lurie Children’s Hospital is indescribable,” she says. “There’s not another children’s hospital like it, and I am so honored to be a part of it.”