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When the hospital becomes home, small kindnesses make a big impact

Vascular surgery patient Debra Samuels, shown here with nurses Sara Tarangelo, left, and Kelsey Long, holding a Starbucks drink.
Vascular surgery patient Debra Samuels, shown here with nurses Sara Tarangelo, left, and Kelsey Long, was always thrilled to receive her favorite Starbucks drink.

One day during Debra Samuels’ lengthy stay on the vascular surgery unit at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, the nurses performing a complicated wound care procedure noticed she was in significant pain. To distract the patient from her discomfort, one of the nurses asked Samuels if she liked Starbucks. Samuels told them her favorite drink—the Caramel Ribbon Crunch Frappuccino—and the nurse promised to get her one when they finished. 

From then on, the nurses made sure Samuels got the drink every time she had to have the procedure. The fact that her nurses remembered what she liked and brought it to her each time cemented their status as “angels,” Samuels said. “I couldn’t ask for any better care than what they gave me … I loved them all and they have a special place in my heart to this day.”

When the hospital becomes home for more than a few days, a small act of kindness can brighten a patient’s day—or change their entire outlook on their stay. Neurology residents Noor Shaik, MD, PhD, and Rogan Magee, MD, PhD, have witnessed this repeatedly since creating PennHOPES, a mini-grant program for providers to surprise patients experiencing lengthy stays with inexpensive but meaningful gifts, like the Starbucks treats that Samuels received. 

Puzzles, art supplies, and more

Noor Shaik, MD, PhD, center, and Rogan Magee, MD, PhD, left, with Lydia Denison, MD.
PennHOPES co-founders and neurology residents Noor Shaik, MD, PhD, center, and Rogan Magee, MD, PhD, left, with fellow neurology resident and PennHOPES core member Lydia Denison, MD.

PennHOPES—it roughly stands for Helping Our Patients Smile—began in August 2023, with support from Penn Medicine’s Center for Health Care Transformation & Innovation, to lift the spirits of patients with extended stays anywhere in the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP). The founders hope to expand the program to other hospitals as resources permit.

In the first six months, the program fulfilled about two to three requests per week from nurses, social workers, physicians, and other providers for patients admitted to medical, surgical, and neurology units. There are only a few criteria—the patient must have an expected stay of five days or more, the request must be less than $50, it must be for something that can bring the patient joy, and it can’t interfere with their medical plan (like a burger and fries for a patient on a low-sodium diet). A small group of medical residents and hospital staff reviews and approves requests.

The responses have been heartwarming, as relayed by their providers: One patient loved puzzles but had finished the ones her family had brought her; she was so excited to receive a new puzzle that she reportedly said, “I cannot believe you would get me something this amazing!” and video chatted with a relative to show them the gift. Another patient was overcome with emotion when he received a craft kit to keep him busy during his frequent hospitalizations. “Oh my God, this is exactly what I used to do with my grandmother,” he apparently exclaimed. 

The program has its roots in an experience Shaik had in medical school, when a patient she had gotten to know was in tears following a surgery. Shaik wondered if the patient was in pain, but in fact, the tears were because she couldn’t find her hair tie. She had withstood many medical complications, but not being able to put her hair back was the last straw.

The patient’s problem was not one she needed a doctor to fix, but something Shaik could solve easily. She went across the street during her lunch break and bought a pack of hair bands for the patient, whose joyful reaction showed her the power of one small act of kindness. 

“Often when we go into medicine, it’s because we want to help people, but there’s so many factors out of our control, and out of a patient’s control,” Shaik said. “That something so small—just a pack of rubber bands—could make her otherwise long and complicated hospital stay better has stuck with me.”

‘It’s worth doing, simply because it spreads joy’

Kelly Boylan, MD, holds her phone, with her screen showing an online order for a back scratcher.
Neurology resident Kelly Boylan, MD, used funds from the PennHOPES program to order a back scratcher for a stroke patient who had been itchy throughout his hospital admission.

When she arrived at Penn Medicine for her neurology residency, Shaik found more opportunities to perform small acts of kindness for patients. And she knew she wasn’t alone. Every day throughout the health system, nurses, technicians, assistants, and other staff go out of their way to brighten the spirits of patients—especially those facing lengthy or complicated hospitalizations—without any expectation of reimbursement or recognition. Early in her residency, Shaik told her faculty mentor, attending neurologist David Do, MD, about her patient encounters. Within a couple of weeks, they had secured funding and outlined the rules for a program that would enable providers to spread joy without spending their own money. 

Penn Medicine Chief Innovation Officer Roy Rosin was happy to support their endeavor as part of the Center for Health Care Transformation and Innovation. The HOPES project called to mind for Rosin and Do, who is also on staff at the Center for Health Care Transformation and Innovation, the “Dreamweaver” staff positions at New York City’s Eleven Madison Park restaurant (employees who design magical and unexpected moments for customers) and Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky’s “11 star experience” concept, referring to the most magical user experience a host can think of. 

“On the surface, this is work that doesn’t necessarily make business sense; it’s not scalable, or profitable, but perhaps it’s worth doing simply because it spreads joy,” said Do, adding he thought the PennHOPES concept “brought so much humanism to patient care.”

Rosin agreed, saying he truly believes “the freedom to deliver this aspect of care can help reconnect clinicians to the mission that brought them into medicine—the ability to provide comfort, reduce suffering, improve someone’s life, and recognize other people’s humanity while expressing their own.”

Giving helps providers, too

It’s not just the patients who feel gratitude because of the gift giving, said Magee, who helped Shaik start the program. He recalled a patient who was expected to be hospitalized through the holiday season. The patient eventually shared with his care team that his family was facing financial challenges, and that not only was he missing his family’s holiday celebration, but he would be unable to provide gifts for his children.

“We were able to approve a gift that made it possible for him to give his children some small but meaningful gifts. The sense of joy that he shared with his care team after hearing this news is something I won’t soon forget,” Magee said. “His story is just one example of how these interactions promote a strong sense of community within our hospital and help us make direct and meaningful impacts for our patients, not just with diagnosis and treatments, but also by achieving balance and peace during times of flux.”


Would you like to support the PennHOPES program? Donate here.


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