Pediatric Care A Community Institution For Almost 80 Years, Shriners Hospital Has Built More Than Stronger Bones

As Scott Flanagan used a pop-culture analogy to describe the work of the motion analysis laboratory at Shriners Children’s Hospital, he touched on both the advanced science of what goes on in the Springfield facility and also the gee-whiz aspect.


He demonstrated how eight infrared cameras examine how a child walks from multiple angles and converts that data to a three-dimensional model that gives doctors all they need to know about a patient’s progress, all while not taxing the child for too long.

“It’s the same technology that’s used in movies,” said Flanagan, a physical therapist. “It’s very cutting-edge — the movie and video-game industries pushed the technology, and we got the trickle-down.”

It’s typical for someone at this hospital, which focuses solely on orthopedic problems in children and adolescents, to draw on something fun and colorful to make a point. In fact, those two adjectives may be used in abundance while simply walking the building’s hallways, which are as far away from the sanitized-white stereotype of hospital décor as they could be.

“We have kids who don’t want to go home when it’s time to leave,” said Bernadette White, the facility’s director of public relations. “How often do you hear that at a hospital?”

But it’s not only children who are smiling. The fact that the hospital provides basically free care without having to deal with insurance companies takes a layer of anxiety out of everyone’s life. How this hospital — like all of the Shriners’ hospitals for children — accomplishes that, in this era of HMO stress, may be a minor miracle in itself, one that happens many times each day.

Meeting a Need

Springfield’s Shriners Hospital, one of 22 children’s hospitals funded by the service organization across North America, each with a specific medical focus, actually has a reach well beyond Western Mass.

About one-third of its patients — the hospital sees about 1,000 inpatients and 13,000 outpatients annually — hail from the western half of the Commonwealth, while another third are from the rest of New England and upstate New York, and another third are brought to Springfield through overseas clinic work. For those who need homes, the Ronald McDonald House in Springfield is typically 75{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} filled with Shriners patients, White said.

Administrator Mark L. Niederpruem said that the hospital’s narrow emphasis on orthopedic disorders allows it to serve the region fully, as anyone from birth to age 18 with such a problem may be accepted into the program.

“Since we’re so focused, we actually have to expand our geographical area,” he said. “But we really want to serve Western Mass. first and foremost, since we’re here and have been here for almost 80 years.”

For the parents of patients, the most obvious benefit of coming to Shriners is financial. The organization’s hospitals don’t charge patients, families, or third-party payers, public or private. If the facili ty must make a referral to another hospital for a specialized service, the patient’s insurance might kick in, but Shriners picks up that tab as well if the child is uninsured.

For the hospital, which is supported by the Shriners organization and those who donate to it, the absence of pressure from third-party payers means freedom to provide the care that makes sense medically, not just financially, Niederpruem said.

“Your insurance might pay for one wheelchair in your lifetime,” he told The Healthcare News. “But a child may need a new wheelchair every year, or a new limb every six months. We can do that here.” The prosthetics may be modified so that one child may have more than one: one for routine living and one for a specific sport, whether that’s skiing, hiking, swimming, or some other activity.

The hospital’s staff of more than 300 can do plenty more than craft limbs and braces in the prosthetics and orthotics lab. Other specialized departments provide services from rehabilitation to radiology. The motion analysis laboratory is just one area that reflects the facility’s focus on keeping up with technology.

“I call it true one-stop shopping,” Niederpruem said. “There’s so much available all in one place.”

Kid Friendly

And it’s offered with a light, colorful touch that, when one walks down the hallways, often suggests a school or community center more than a hospital. Doors and rooms are plastered with drawings and craftwork, while common areas teem with life, as children learning to use wheelchairs, braces, and spine-correcting headgear pass the spare time playing games, assembling puzzles, and watching age-appropriate videos. There’s even a large, colorful classroom where inpatients can keep up with their schoolwork.

“It’s colorful and childlike, and there’s definitely a non-medical feel to it,” White said. “People tell me this doesn’t look like a hospital or smell like a hospital.”

“We always want to make it inviting for parents too,” Niederpruem added, referring to comfortable lounges where parents and family members can relax and reflect. The hospital also allows one family member to remain bedside with each inpatient at all hours.

With some community support, patients are often treated to outings at places such as Daggett Gold Medal Gymnastics in Agawam and Amelia Park Ice Arena in Westfield, where they play ‘sled hockey,’ White said. Teenagers in the hospital’s transitioning program, which prepares them for the resources they will tap as adults, are treated to a Harvest Ball every two years, a prom of sorts.

An army of 200 volunteers help weave a support net, stopping by to conduct classes in crafts ranging from clay molding to origami, or to sew sheets for the operating tables. “It takes a lot to keep everything going,” White said. “We’re fortunate to have the support of the community.”

The homey atmosphere shouldn’t mask the skilled work going on, however, Niederpruem said. For example, he noted, “we employ the only three pediatric orthopedists west of Boston, north of Hartford, and south of Burlington. So that’s expertise that’s centered right here.”

The building itself on Carew Street is a thoroughly modern facility, built for the hospital in 1990 after almost 70 years at its original location nearby.

“Just from a community standpoint, this is not a small business,” Niederpruem said of the non-profit hospital. “These are high-skill jobs that can have a real impact on the local economy.”

Reaching Out

Hospital staffers want that impact to be more than financial. They’re even taking to local schools, teaching children about their friends who are fighting bone and joint diseases. White said a child in a classroom will have a finger placed in a plaster cast before trying out a walker or wheelchair. It’s in moments like those when the challenges of orthopedic problems hit home.

“They’re learning to be more accepting of differences,” she said. “When they see these children with problems, they respect them and see that they’re really not that different.”

By helping to bridge those differences, and by helping sick children move closer to their physical goals, she said, Shriners Hospital is helping to build confidence and understanding as well as healthy bones.

And when it’s time for the kids to leave, well, they’ll just have to get over it.

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