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What cancer taught me about healthcare design

September 12, 2019

By Lisa Kulawczyk-Pringle

Silver linings of a cancer diagnosis are minimal. But the takeaway from one of our designers? Healthcare settings can be better

Seven months before our wedding, my husband Bill was diagnosed with stage IVB Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He had felt sick for months leading up to his diagnosis. It took a month just to get him an appointment, plus visits to urgent care, antibiotics, and steroids to mask a problem we didn’t even understand yet. He eventually saw a doctor and was admitted to the hospital. Within a week, he was drained and scanned. He underwent biopsies, lab tests, and even heart surgery. Finally, the diagnosis: Bill was literally days—if not hours—from total heart failure. He spent the next two weeks in cardiac ICU, receiving his first of six chemotherapy treatments.

It was at that time I learned what needed to be packed and brought to a hospital. I got to know the names of about 60 doctors and nurses, how to spout medical hubbub, and the names of various procedures and medications. I learned how to deliver the news to loved ones that their son, best friend, or colleague has cancer. I learned how to coordinate at-home nurses, and how to bounce friends who “just had a cold.” I learned how to keep my composure, and then I learned how to go back to work  despite the heaviness weighing on my emotional wellbeing.

It’s hard to write about what I went through during this time, even though it pales in comparison to what Bill went through. It is easier to be clinical and state the facts. Two years later, my heart still sinks when I think about his diagnosis, even as we continue to deal with the long-term effects of his treatments. We’re not out of the woods yet.

This is why I chose to work in healthcare design. I can continue to be an active part of healing, even when I’m so helpless to improve the situation of those who have it far worse than me.

Seven months before Lisa’s wedding, her husband Bill was diagnosed with stage IVB Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Lisa chose to work in healthcare design to be an active part of healing.

How I experienced the hospital

As an architect, I took note of our surroundings during this experience. I watched nurses lasso tubes onto the headwalls because they were placed in an inaccessible location. I saw patients struggle to dodge equipment stuck in the hallway with nowhere to go. When I used the family gathering rooms during Bill’s hospital stays, I found myself daydreaming of how I’d reconfigure the furniture to have a better relationship with the windows and natural light. I saw how stressed nurses were—in some locations, they had nowhere to take a break. Bill had no idea what day of the week it was, and sometimes no idea of the time because of the disconnect between his room and the outside world. As a visitor, I often had nowhere to hang my coat or bag. These are problems we address in our profession, and ones I have experienced firsthand.

I’m not alone in this type of experience. Unfortunately, lots of people will get sick, or their loved ones will get sick. Meeting other healthcare professionals, I have seen that these experiences inform their design and decision-making process as well. I try to approach my work compassionately for the patients, families, and healthcare workers. At the same time, I try to learn as much as I can from my colleagues and clients. I understand that design can improve outcomes, but maybe it could help save lives by creating smarter healthcare settings. 

What if the smart design of a hospital room could be attributed to saving a life? I’ll do anything to earn that honor.

 As an architect, Lisa has worked on projects that move healthcare closer to the patient. This “Health Parks” model incorporates smart design for localized treatment and wellness care.

Multimodal care options

I was recently chosen to attend the 2019 Healthcare Facilities Symposium + Expo (HFSE) as Stantec’s 2019 HFSE Emerging Voice representative. The HFSE is a multi-disciplinary conference that focuses on improved delivery of healthcare through physical space. The sessions showcase first-of-a-kind caregiver treatment, support facilities, and campus-wide interventions across the country.

Working with Stantec’s Health sector, right-sizing campuses after years of reactionary growth and change has become a common theme. We must look to future trends in healthcare to determine where different treatments should take place. In many ways, healthcare is becoming more individualized—it’s not a one size fits all treatment. We can relocate many treatments from regional hubs into local care centers or even in the home.  

So much of the healing process happens at home, and patients with a support group have better outcomes. Receiving treatment at local hubs helps patients because their support systems oftentimes get them to their appointments. At-home care can save costs and increase the patients comfort. These types of programs would have been a huge help to me.

Lisa’s family is very active with the Leukemia + Lymphoma Society (LLS), which helped fund the new treatment regimen that enabled her husband, Bill, to be cancer free. 

With community in mind

While working in healthcare design is helpful, it’s not all that we do. Despite the dramatic start to our story, my husband’s cancer is curable. Now my family is very active with the Leukemia + Lymphoma Society (LLS), which helped fund the new treatment regimen that enabled Bill to be cancer free. LLS also provided us with emotional and technical resources when we went through treatment, and now that Bill is out of treatment, they’re connecting us to other survivors and their families.

What if the smart design of a hospital room could be attributed to saving a life? I’ll do anything to earn that honor.

I’m encouraged to share what we do to help our communities through situations we can’t design our way out of. At Stantec’s studio in Detroit, we maintain an ongoing canned-food drive and have given more than 1,000 food and hygiene items to the Van Elslander Cancer Center at Ascension St. John Hospital in Detroit, with donations occurring every few months at Bill’s follow-up appointments. I also actively volunteer for universal healthcare reform groups so that no one dies because they’re poor, and no one is made homeless by medical bills. Recently our studio organized a Stantec Team to participate in LLS’s Light the Night fundraiser walk, for which donations to our team benefit various forms of treatment, research and resources.

These are small things we do as individuals. But over time, I hope that all of those small things can come together to alleviate or eradicate the pain that cancer causes families.

  • Lisa Kulawczyk-Pringle

    An architect focusing on healthcare design, Lisa has spent more than six years working on inpatient and outpatient centers as well as surgery suites.

    Contact Lisa
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