by community members + aggregated stories with local interests and social impacts

More Than Medicine

By Caroline Ward

a student writer of
Prof. Meyer of ENGWRT 1330

Me: A Volunteer

In the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, brick and grey restaurants, shops, and condos cover the landscape, bordered on one side by the Allegheny River, and by the emerald tree tops of the Allegheny Arsenal on another. The buildings are all but homogenized in their height and appearance, except for one that towers over the rest, it stands out with cyan bricking, and plum siding amongst the rusted and ashen colors of the neighborhoods and stores below. Inside this wonderfully-hued structure are hundreds of young kids from around the world, some fighting for their lives. This is the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

The general goal of this medical facility is for its patients to not think about where they are and why they are there. Imaging rooms are decorated to appear underwater, where friendly undersea creatures watch over the procedures. The sections of rooms are labeled not by the type of patient or the severity of their ailment, but by benign animals like cows or hippos. “Child Life” staff are on the ready to distract kids from IV insertions or shots. Music and animal therapy is also available for little ones who need help healing. Every effort has been made to give children the quick and comfortable recovery they deserve.

The Children’s hospital campus has been designed with the needs of patients and parents kept close in mind, holding 315 beds, an atrium, chapel, libraries, healing garden, and business center for working parents. There is a nurse work station for every two patient rooms in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit,) 13 operating suits, six of which have minimally invasive equipment. The UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh has established the standard for pediatric care across the world.

The idea of an institution being dedicated to healing children from diseases and injuries no one their age should experience is at the very least disheartening. What’s even more disheartening is the fact that every now and then, a picture of a white rose appears on a patient’s door, signifying a child is preparing to, or has passed away. However, once inside the building, it’s easy to forget you’re visiting a place as melancholy as a children’s hospital.

The plethora of colors inside puts the palette of the exterior to shame. Lavender pillars support the spacious lobby, which blue, violet, and bright green chairs litter the floor. Hanging lights of every tint decorate the ceiling. The only thing that can be heard are the murmurs of various people inside; the building is what’s known as “quiet,” since the boilers, chillers, and generators are located outside of the facility.

A ride on the so-called “Grape” or “Orange” elevators leads to more lovely sights. Interesting adornments and activities such as aquariums, books, playrooms, TVs, video games, and more fill waiting areas. Murals of the history of the building, animals, and art created by past patients decorate the hallways.

I enter the cafeteria as an off-duty volunteer before crossing the Rainbow Bridge to the Rangos Center to start work at a lab. The dining area, like the rest of the building, goes above and beyond for the families and patients staying there. Hungry staff or families have a choice of sushi, cold sandwiches, parfaits, pizza, make-your-own sandwiches, soup, salads, and more. Not only is the food good, but it’s rather cheap. I can get my usual sandwich, chips, and tea for $7.50.

“What can I get you?” asks a young black man working the sandwich line. He wears an apron and gloves, and towers above me by at least six inches. I could probably fit my whole body in his shadow with ease.

“Veggie burger with provolone, please.”

“All out,” he replies, and looks me dead in the eyes, his face blank.

“Oh, well, um,” I begin frantically searching the menu board.

“I’m just messing with you,” he says as a small, mischievous smile brightens his face. I exhale and laugh with him.

“You was worried huh? Nah, of course we got it.”

After paying for my food, I enter the seating area, which is no less vibrant than the rest of the building. Small, lime tables and chairs, too small for the average adult fill most of the center of the floor. Bordering these seating arrangements are identical furniture, save for size and color. These chairs and tables are adult-sized and tangerine orange. Booths line one side of the room, which are usually filled since they’re the most comfortable and private. I take a seat at an orange table near a window that reveals the cafeteria patio. Outdoor tables and umbrellas sit outside, awaiting a lunch-goer who needs some fresh air. Lilac lawn chairs are also strewn about the ground.

The lunchtime rush has already passed through, and most of my fellow occupants appear to be either staff or employees at the nearby lab. A table of female nurses wearing aqua scrubs sits across the room from me, eating and chatting in a bubbly fashion. A middle-aged woman dressed in office clothes silently nibbles at her salad while looking on her phone. Near the windows, a table of medical students discuss their rounds in different departments over sandwiches and sushi. The atmosphere is pleasant and bright, except for an older man donning a white coat sitting at a table alone. His salt and pepper hair is cut short, his glasses partially cover his face, but not enough to hide his distant and solemn expression.

The man appears to be a doctor; his physician’s lab coat strongly suggests this. He sits back in his chair with his arms folded motionless. Empty wrappers from his now eaten food lay on his orange tray. It’s anybody’s guess as to what’s going through his mind. Perhaps one of his patients recently had a white rose put upon their door, maybe he misses his family, or maybe he is just tired. Throughout the entire cafeteria, there were no weeping or grief stricken parents, just one fatigued, old doctor.

A girl in a tell-tale dark-purple shirt with the word “VOLUNTEER” written in white across the back flits down the neighboring hall. Volunteers are taught during training that purple shirts are signals to patients that this person isn’t here to given them shots, medicine, or anything else unpleasant. They are there to bring toys, games, crafts, or company. Purple is, in fact, the general color theme throughout the building. Volunteers will hold babies while their parents are away, clean up toys, play with kids in playrooms, bring parents miscellaneous items like chargers, shampoo, or earbuds.

Once during my volunteering shift in the Emergency Department, I had run out of things to do as the department was slow, so I was sent up a few floors to do crafts with 8-year-old patient G-. My supervisor informed me that her family either didn’t or couldn’t visit her very often, so she could use the company. I went up the faculty elevator with a bag holding enough coloring books, markers, colored pencils, stickers, and activity books to keep a child busy for weeks. When I got to the patient’s room, I found a cheery, young black girl with mid-length braids connected to a few tubes and wires, sitting in a hospital bed playing on an iPhone.

“Hey,” I said, “my name is Caroline, I brought some crafts for us to do if you were getting a little bored. Want to pick one out?”

She grinned at me and curiously eyed my bag.


Patient G- picked a booklet of blank faces with stickers of facial features to be applied to the pages. I asked her about herself, and learned that she really wanted a pet bird, helps take care of her little sister when at home, and to my delight, that her favorite subject in school was science. At one point, a nurse came in to check her vitals, and mouthed the words “thank you” to me.
I don’t know why the patient was at the hospital; I’m not supposed to ask. To me, she seemed perfectly happy and healthy, it was almost like she wasn’t sick.

Colleen O'Connor: A Child Life Specialist

On a Saturday night, Colleen O’Connor sits at a desk in the volunteer office of the UPMC Children’s Hospital. Though not a volunteer, but rather a Child Life specialist, she utilizes the work space and computers to scan through lists of patients in emergency department rooms, and patients in the waiting room. Her job consists of working with children and families to help them cope with the technical aspects of their stay, supporting child patients and their parents in dealing with the emotional toll of their illness or injury, and even aiding doctors with performing various procedures by calming a frightened patient.

This 50-year-old appears perhaps younger than 40, with a petite, trim figure, and exceptionally good posture. Her blonde-highlighted chestnut hair is pulled back in a short ponytail from her face, tanned from many travels around the world, biking trips across the United States, and countless laps around various tracks. Her athletic endeavors began very young, finishing 10th for the cross-country one-mile event in the Junior Olympics at the young age of 12. She maintains her fitness, running “just” six to eight miles regularly. Although her outward appearance seems deceptively young, O’Connor’s doctor tells her she has the feet of a 90-year-old.

She’s alone until a college-student volunteer enters the office to start her shift. O’Connor sees her briefly every other week, but you wouldn’t know that their interactions have been so few.

“Hey, you!” says O’Connor as she greets the student, her sharp, moderately pitched voice fills the office space, “I haven’t seen you in forever! How was winter break?”

Before the student can open her mouth to respond, O’Connor looks her up and down and gasps as her own emerald eyes widen.

“You got engaged!”

A silver, diamond studded ring sits on the student’s left ring finger. Not even her closest friends or family had noticed it without first being informed.

“How did he do it? Tell me all about it.”

As a Pittsburgh native, it would seem fitting that O’Connor find a career right in her hometown. However, O’Connor’s journey that eventually brought her to this job, first lead her to Texas, California, and nearly all of the other U.S. states.

As a member of an extremely large Irish family, O’Connor has always been a people person; she has over 100 cousins and second cousins. Her dad is one of nine, her mom is one of five, and most of their siblings had around eight or nine kids themselves, creating a giant family tree. O’Connor enjoyed being surrounding by people she loved for the first 18 years of her life, so when it was time to move on to college, she studied subjects that would continue to fill her life with people.

 O’Connor graduated from The University of Pittsburgh with a dual degree in Theater and Psychology. Seeking to expand her knowledge and grow her skill in theater, she went back to Pitt for graduate school, and completed a Master’s of Fine Arts (MFA) in Acting. This degree is what lead O’Connor out of her rainy hometown of Pittsburgh, and to the sunny city of Dallas.

Using her people skills and upbeat personality, O’Connor quickly found a job running an acting conservatory called KD Studio in Dallas. She wore many hats; O’Connor was in charge of who was hired and fired, made sure that the associates degree in acting that the studio offered adhered to state requirements, recruited actors all over the country, and even trained a few fairly famous actors such as George Eads, who can be seen in the show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Kevin Jamal Woods from The Little Rascals. In fact, O’Connor worked with all the children in the film The Little Rascals, but remembers Woods the most.

“He was such a ham,” says O’Connor, “his grandma brought him in because she didn’t know what to do with him. He’d start talking on and on about a pet dog his family has, then his grandma would tell me, ‘We don’t have a dog.’”

For several years, O’Connor worked this job and loved it. However, she met a man who would become her boyfriend for a time, and moved to San Francisco to be with him.  She got a job at a telecom company, and remained with that job her boyfriend for five years. At this point, O’Connor decided to let acting be a secondary career, and focused on having a more nine-to-five lifestyle.

In 2000, when O’Connor was about 33, Silicon Valley went under due to the Dot-com Bubble and Telecoms Crash. The company she worked for shut down, and she and her boyfriend broke up. Fortunately, her boss gave her a one year severance package, insuring her welfare for about a year. She decided to move back to Pittsburgh, with a lot of free time on her hands.  

While working on and off as a nanny, O’Connor became interested in health and human services. Her sister worked in the PICU (Pediatric Intensive Care Unit,) at the UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh which O’Connor found fascinating. Wanting to get some experience with the hospital environment and spend time with kids, O’Connor started volunteering at the same hospital and loved it. She thought about a career as a Child Life Specialist, someone who helps young patients and their families navigate the medical world, and cope with traumatic events. First, O’Connor would need a Master’s Degree in Applied Developmental Psychology, which she earned at Pitt. Her next step would be to complete an internship. Mostly because O’Connor isn’t a fan of Pittsburgh’s rain and snow, she decided to move back to California, and ended up being hired by Stanford University.

Stanford’s hospital was building a pediatric unit and needed people to design it. Since the telecom company O’Connor had worked at constructed cell towers, she could read blueprints. Combined with her experience in hospitals, she was perfect for the job. She even played a role in establishing the hospital’s Child Life Program. She worked at Stanford for several years, until she would once again find herself back home in Pittsburgh.

O’Connor’s sister started having children, and wanted O’Connor to be there during their childhoods. She agreed, but only on the condition that she could work in trauma care.

It was then that O’Connor finally ended up with her current job in the emergency department as a Child Life Specialist. Her days on the job are filled with helping patients and families with procedures such as IV starts and laceration repairs, comforting trauma patients, and helping parents come to grips with a new diagnosis. She knows how to calm a child’s a fear of needles, how to deal with the hysterical mom or dad of a child who has been hit by a car, and still adores her job.

When asked about her love for trauma care, O’Connor explained, “They call us adrenaline junkies. It could be a crazy night, it could be a nothing night, I like the energy. I like helping patients and families when they’re at their worst.”

She also thinks that her years of experience in theater has given her valuable skills that she uses on a daily basis.

“I know how to work a room as they say, how to get people’s attention. That’s kind of the actor, director in me. I can just say, ‘Everybody stop. We’re gonna do this.’ I’m comfortable with everyone looking at me.”

While O’Connor loves her job, it isn’t easy.

“It’s really hard when you stop and think, ‘Oh my god, in five minutes when the oncologist team comes and tells them their child has cancer, their life will never be the same.’”

O’Connor vividly remembers one of her hardest experiences with a patient. D- was a 7-year-old boy with a spinal tumor from Ohio, who was in and out of the operating room.

“He was a little shit, like, he was a spit fire, I loved him for that. Some of the staff didn’t like him, you know, ‘Oh, D- didn’t take his medicine!’ Well he’s a little boy, what do you expect?”

D- ended up passing away, so O’Connor, as well as D-’s oncology Child Life Specialist went to the funeral, which really touched the family.

“I remember D-’s grandmother telling me,” says O’Connor, “‘You see thousands of kids. Now we know that D-was special.’ I thought, now we know that we really impact families. Because it’s hard seeing a 7-year-old die, [that] should not happen.”

Despite how hard things can be, like making footprints of dying children for their parents, O’Connor can’t imagine not doing it. Even when things are really hard, she still wants to go back. She would rather be with kids than anyone else.

“I can’t do adults,” she says, “adults are grumpy. I love the energy of kids, they don’t know how bad it is.

In fact, rather than the tragedies she deals with, it’s politics that frustrate and exhaust O’Connor the most, like the UPMC job loss in 2014 that led to protests and 20 people arrested for civil disobedience.

O’Connor also struggles with the involvement of Child Life staff in Children’s worldly endeavors. While she says that she’s never seen a hospital with as much community support as the UPMC Children’s Hospital, she’s also well aware of the need in other countries. Having done two medical missions trips to Morocco for Operation Smile, a non-profit medical organization dedicated to treating cleft lips and palates in underprivileged countries.

“Things that we take for granted, kids die from in other countries, like water and especially infections. With Operation Smile, kids would die after we left, because they would get infections from the surgery that wouldn’t be treated. So, a recovery team would have to be sent for a week or so to make sure the kids healed right.”

O’Connor wishes Children’s would make more efforts to aid the rest of the world in its efforts to heal the sick, so she often has to go on trips to fulfill that part of her on her own.

Now at the age of 50, O’Connor has taking up traveling as her passion. Having never married, her main companion is her “little 30-pound mutt rescue” named Cali. O’Connor adopted her in California after breaking up with her boyfriend, and they have been inseparable since. Having now been to all 50 states, O’Connor now travels the world with Cali. She’s been to Africa three times, Spain, Morocco, Portugal, Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Belize, Ireland, and backpacked all across Europe.

For now, O’Connor is very happy with her life.

“My grandma, a big Irish woman, told me not to have regrets. I just ask myself, if I don’t do this, will I regret it? If so, then I do it. It helps me make decisions. That’s how I decided to move back to Pittsburgh to help my sister take care of her kids. The job at Stanford will be there, but watching my nieces grow up is something I can’t get back.”

The Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh has successfully created a safe environment for young patients by employing individual’s like O’Connor, who put the safety and comfort of those in their care before their own. Whether it’s turning an x-ray machine into an underwater ocean world, having a volunteer do crafts with a lonely patient, or just adding some color in times that feel grey and dreary, Children’s has set a very high bar for a patient’s hospital experience.

Story Credits

Author: Caroline Ward
Editor: Alyse Horn-Pyatt
Web Producer: Will Halim

Photographs were courtesy of the writer and/or the story subjects.

Disclaimer: the narrative expressed in the article is solely those of the author(s).
if you find this story offensive or inaccurate in any way, please contact us for (re)moderation. Please make sure your phone# is accurate to receive our call.


Our Stories of the Same Causes

Student-writer Stories

Stories of Other Causes

Log in with your credentials

Forgot your details?