Whenever Thomas Molina asked me if he was going to die, he would follow up the question with a small, simple statement: “I don’t want to die.” Thomas was diagnosed with leukemia just after his third birthday. The cancer went into remission, but he was diagnosed again when he was 11 years old—old enough to know what was happening and to ask time and time again the same question: “Am I going to die?”
I got to know the Molina family as a hospital chaplain when Thomas was first diagnosed with cancer; I have witnessed and been a part of their quiet struggle to save their son’s life. After the second diagnosis, Thomas went through another round of chemotherapy, which meant spending a lot of time in a hospital, just like during his first battle with cancer. Fortunately for the Molina family, the brand-new Dell Children’s Medical Center had just opened its doors in their Austin community in 2007. “I distinctly remember walking through Dell CMC with my jaw dropped in amazement, thinking how I wish this had existed when Thomas was in treatment from 1999 to 2002,” Thomas’s mother, Lisa, told me later.
The medical center was founded with a grant from Michael and Susan Dell, and when it opened, it boasted bar-setting sustainable design and became the first medical facility in the United States to earn LEED Platinum status. The center was an immediate hit, so much so that the hospital will open a new tower in May 2013, increasing its total number of beds by more than forty percent. The new addition hopefully will become the first medical facility to secure Platinum status for LEED’s new health-care rating, which is pushing green technology in a medical setting as never before.
Alan Bell, AIA, LEED AP, is the director of design and construction at Seton Network Facilities and is overseeing the new addition to Dell. He can easily list the new wing’s sustainable design features, which include a vast rooftop solar array and a remarkable air-purification system. Bell told me that because the hospital is seeing a reduction in patient stays and an increase in staff retention in the new facility, it’s commissioned an analysis of how sustainable design is impacting patient outcomes. “Was it a result of the sustainable building or just being in a new facility?” Bell questioned. “This is hard to say without the data analysis.”
For Thomas, who is now sixteen and continues to fight for a full recovery, Dell CMC has become a second home. He still goes to the hospital two times a week. Because of his time in health-care facilities, he’s become a connoisseur of sorts. And he likes what he sees at Dell. “It looks much nicer, and the courtyards make it different from other hospitals I’ve been to,” he told me. “They also have the colored and stained glass, which I like a lot, and a lot of windows that allow more sunshine in. There’s also a game room where I can play video games to get out of my room.”
“Dell doesn’t seem like a prison with low ceilings and artificial light and narrow hallways,” Lisa added. “Believe me, we’ve been there, done that, and it’s depressing.” The new tower at Dell will retreat further from any prison design, again featuring the garden-like courtyards that Thomas and his mother find so appealing. Lushly planted with native greens and flowing water features, the six different green spaces act as the lungs of the buildings, providing cooler fresh air to the sophisticated air-filtration systems as well as allowing 60 percent of indoor spaces to receive natural light.
Bell said the design choices at Dell CMC were, of course, intentional. “It does not look like, feel, or smell like a hospital, which can all be traced back to design decisions made in support of the sustainable design,” he said. “Those factors take away the ‘scary’ for kids visiting the hospital.”
Lisa understands how the design of Dell is a healing agent for Thomas and the rest of her family. “I especially love the natural light, open space, original art, and of course, the interior courtyards with the flowing water, which are just relaxing and healing,” she said. “I spent many days and weeks there, and I know in my heart that all these aspects helped me through very rough times. More importantly, they helped both my children. Thomas would love to go outside to the courtyards when he was able, and my younger daughter considered the hospital a playground. She still asks to go play with the interactive art at the front entrance. I’m sure it helped her cope with the stress of Thomas’s treatment, and the fact that her life revolved around his for a very long time.”
Too often when we think of green design, we can get lost in the technical achievements, but we have to remember that sustainable design ultimately serves our own very fragile human needs. The green design movement is explicitly linked to the health of humankind.
Lisa and Thomas know this better than most. “Dell is incredibly beautiful and soulful, and even sacred,” Lisa said. “When you have personally known so many children there who have fought or are fighting for their lives or have taken their last breath there, I personally try to be mindful of these kids and to feel their presence every time I go there.”
Thomas is a true cancer warrior; unlike many kids his age, he’s had to confront his own mortality. Perhaps because of his own personal fight, he understands the fragility of life more intimately. It is why he believes his generation is so passionate about the environment—there are no guarantees in life. We must treasure what we have and fight to keep it.