Toronto’s Hospital For Sick Children is known globally for its high level of patient care. But now the health centre is providing people with a different experience — the chance to stay in a pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) room as part of a partnership with Airbnb.
SickKids, as it’s known, turned a meeting room in a part of the hospital’s 10th floor (that isn’t used for patients) into a replica of a PICU room — complete with four beds, four chairs and crammed full of medical equipment.
The room can be booked in three-hour time slots as part of a unique fundraising experience. Each slot can host up to seven people, and costs $2,392 per person — or $16,744 total, which is the cost of operating a PICU room for one night. Guests staying in the room get to divide the three beds and four chairs between them. The fourth bed is occupied by a “patient” — an extremely realistic baby mannequin that the hospital uses for training.
All of the money raised goes to the hospital.
While guests get to experience SickKids’ state-of-the-art care, good luck getting comfortable. According to the listing, “there is no TV and WiFi is spotty,” so it’s best to bring some reading material.
Entering the room is a suffocating experience — even when empty, there’s not a lot of room to move beds around and there’s a cacophony of sounds, a variety of medical devices beeping loudly at all hours of the day. It’s nearly impossible to think. The hospital staff go above and beyond despite the limitations, but it’s not an environment that’s particularly conducive to healing.
Dr. Lennox Huang, a pediatric intensive care doctor who serves as the hospital’s chief medical officer and vice-president for medical and academic affairs, said that while people recognize SickKids’ world-class care, most don’t see the shocking state of the rooms.
“We had to do this in a way that would allow people to experience it. To really bring it to life. As closely as possible while at the same time protecting our patients and families,” he said in an interview with HuffPost Canada.
The hospital wanted donors to be forced to contend with the room’s challenges head-on, and see what patients and their families endure every day for stays that are often much longer than the three-hour snippet that guests will experience.
A particularly distressing part of the close contact between patients sharing a room is when doctors have to deliver bad news to parents or when despite best efforts, a child doesn’t survive.
“Our team needs to break bad news to families and because of the constraints of our space sometimes we have to do this in an environment where it’s within earshot. It’s certainly within sight of other families,” Dr. Huang said.
“The reality is sometimes things are so terrible that children aren’t able to survive despite world-class care here and other families and other children might bear witness to that.”
Dr. Huang didn’t want to spoil too much of the Airbnb recreation, but said the environment has been carefully crafted to be just like an intensive care unit (ICU) room, including the sounds, tough conversations, and the sudden rushes to save a dying patient’s life.
“You’ll see tape on the floors to tell people where not to step. You’ll see headphones because we need to protect the privacy of the other patients and so we’re left with two options: We either kick families out while they’re trying to comfort their children or we have them wear headphones to try and protect the privacy of the other patients in the room.”
Lights will turn on randomly even in the middle of the night because other patients need care, making it difficult to sleep. There isn’t enough natural light, which disorients patients, family and staff who can lose track of whether it’s night or day, he added.
“If we can do amazing things now with the environment that we have, just think what we’re able to do if we have the right environment for our patients and families,” said Dr. Huang.
Every minute feels like a year. You are hearing every single noise, every single nurse that’s coming in and out. You’re hearing the patients beside you. It’s disruptive. It’s not relaxing.Jessie Behan, mother
Jessie Behan knows the challenges of the PICU all too well. Her son, Everest, had an accident in 2016 when he was only six months old and needed emergency brain surgery. She and her husband spent a few days at SickKids, both in the PICU and the neurology unit.
“There was just one chair at the end of the bed so we took turns sitting by his bedside but … you’re severely sleep deprived, it doesn’t help with anxiety and depression and dealing with an emotional tragedy.”
Behan praised the hospitals high level of care, crediting them with saving Everest’s life, but said that changes to the structure of the rooms were necessary to give parents the dignity and privacy they needed to be at their child’s bedside.
“Every minute feels like a year. You are hearing every single noise, every single nurse that’s coming in and out. You’re hearing the patients beside you. It’s disruptive. It’s not relaxing,” she told HuffPost Canada. “You just had no privacy and there was no room for visitors, there’s barely any room for you.”
The lack of privacy and spaces put an additional strain on parents. Behan explained that she and her husband ended up fighting because she wanted him to leave to get some sleep because he was “delusional,” but he insisted on staying at their son’s bedside.
“You really try to come together, but it’s hard when there’s nurses coming in every 30 minutes to check on other people in the room.”
While some of the room’s challenges are immediately apparent, including the noise and cramped space, others are less obvious. The ceilings are lower and the doors are smaller than current ICU recommendations, making it hard to get equipment through the door. The rate that air gets turned over isn’t enough to maintain optimal levels of infection control.
Donations are vital
Ontario’s hospitals rely heavily on donations. While a hospital’s operating costs are almost entirely covered by government funding, “capital” funding for new equipment or infrastructure is financed through several sources, such as parking fees and renting out free space.
However, most of the money comes from donations fostered through a hospital’s foundation, according to Healthy Debate, a website that aims to provide “factual, easy-to-understand information about the health-care system.”
SickKids said it brought in $161.9 million through its fundraising program and revenue generated from lottery and parking programs, as detailed in its annual report for 2018-2019. Total grants and charitable donations resulted in $123.4 million, but this is still not enough to overcome the hospital’s current limitations.
Despite the fact that Canadians generally love to donate to health-care causes — with 13 per cent of all donations by Canadians going to this area — and the large number of donations that SickKids pulls in a typical year, donor fatigue is a growing concern.
Toronto is a particularly problematic city in this regard: There’s heavy competition for donor dollars, and donors’ willingness and ability to give is becoming exhausted, the Ontario Hospital Association told the website.
A creative way to garner donations, such as SickKids’ partnership with Airbnb, could be one way of combating that reality. The high pricetag may raise eyebrows, but according to Statistics Canada figures from 2013, the 25 per cent of donors who gave the most to charitable causes accounted for 84 per cent of all donations.
The oldest parts of SickKids were built in 1949 and the hospital last expanded in 1993. The infrastructure just hasn’t kept up with the rapid advance of technology, despite their aspirations for a high level of care.
What would an ideal PICU room look like? Current standards recommend having one patient in the same sized room where SickKids currently hosts four, Dr. Huang explained. The rooms would have natural light and would have a lot of space for families to be with their children and still be able to rest. They would also be big enough for all the latest medical equipment, as well as ready for a future where artificial intelligence (AI) technology becomes common in medicine.
Behan hopes that people who partake in the Airbnb experience walk away with more compassion for the families that stay at the hospital and become motivated to donate and encourage others to do the same.
“Always put yourself in other people’s shoes somehow and obviously [an] experience in this room will help do that. But I think it’s good karma to donate even if you haven’t stepped foot in here because I see it as an insurance policy.”
Some guests with Toronto connections stayed in the room overnight on Tuesday, including Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, “Bachelor in Paradise” couple Kevin Wendt and Astrid Loch, and Lauren Howe of Breakfast Television.
The collaboration with Airbnb is part of the hospital’s SickKids VS Limits campaign, which is aiming to raise $1.3 billion to build the ideal hospital of the future in order to improve patient outcomes and bring in more cutting-edge technology.
Experiences at the room can be booked until Sept. 24th, but the SickKids VS Limits campaign is expected to run until the end of March 2022.