UPMC Children’s Hospital: The Transformative Power of Places

By: Katelyn Blough

“We’re standing in fall. We’re about to go to summer,” says Dr. Andrew Urbach, medical director, Patient Experience and Development, UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

It’s oddly bright — a strategic decision accomplished by leaving a vertical gap between the windows and the wall that leads to the second floor of the hospital. The gap didn’t need to exist, but its presence brings in double the light from outside into the corridor, so patients and visitors never enter the hospital in a dark, dingy place.

The gap also provides a special nook for robots made of ordinary, household objects: Franco Harris and the Immaculate Reception, a skier with Thermos bottles for legs, a hockey player raising the Stanley Cup over his head.

Children'sWe pass a photograph of a young baseball player just before we enter the main lobby. A simple picture that Urbach singles out as embodying the meaning of UPMC Children’s. If you’re younger than the player, you want to be him. If you’re playing little league, you are him. If you’re in your 50s and 60s, you look back and remember the days you were in little league.

Unlike other pediatric hospitals that often target their facilities specifically to kids, UPMC Children’s was designed to appeal to people of all ages, representing the wide range of ages the hospital serves, including adolescents and occasionally adults.

Urbach has been at UPMC since 1979, a feat that makes him chuckle when I ask if he thought he’d still be here after all this time. But it was the perfect match for him: his medical experience paired with his unwavering passion for design created a bond to UPMC that’d be hard to replicate.

“I grew up in a family that was in the textile business, and my mother was an interior designer. I used to go shopping with her in Manhattan,” Urbach recalls when asked how his role at UPMC developed into designing UPMC Children’s into the masterpiece it is today.

Children'sWe enter the doors of the emergency department and immediately hear several children crying. Urbach swipes his ID badge and we enter CT scanner room. We’ve been teleported into the middle of a coral reef. A shark, hippo and alligator greet us. Seaweed grows from wires on the machinery. The scanner itself is smothered in a skin of water and coral.

If I was 5 again, I’d bet money I’d ask my mom to take me back to that coral reef.

As we leave the room, Urbach quickens his pace. His hands are pointing left and right. Each piece of art has a story, and he knows them all by heart.

We enter the chapel and stop in front of a shadowbox frame filled with rocks in the shape of a heart.

It’s customizable, inclusive. But when you look out toward to the hospital, you see color. It’s subdued, but nonetheless, it’s there.

As we walk, we pass hundreds of paintings, photographs, drawings, sculptures, quilts. Each resembling its own story.

Puppets created by school kids represent children from around the world.

“Right away, we let children know this place is for them,” Urbach says. “It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, or what you look like. You’re welcome here.”

A castle, rainbow, and princess mosaic made by third graders.

Children's“The woman in the upper, right hand corner is the mother of one of the girls who helped create the mosaic. While the kids were making the mosaic, she died in a tragic accident, so they chose to represent her in the piece,” Urbach says.

Each individual story works together to create a place that is so much more than just a hospital.

“We did a survey after we ‘moved in’ to our new location in Lawrenceville to gather feedback on what we tried to accomplish here,” Urbach says. “Parents were asked to answer, ‘How does this building make you feel?’ in one word.”

The word most received? “Happy.”