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Children’s hospital takes sting out of visits

If most children think hospitals are scary, dark places that cause pain and confinement, then most of them probably have never set foot inside Niswonger Children’s Hospital, located adjacent to the campus of Johnson City Medical Center.
That’s the view taken by NCH Chief Executive Officer Steven Godbold, who has served in the health care field for some 17 years.
“We really get down on the child’s level here,” Godbold said recently. “We talk to them like everyday people, but about things they relate to and things they find interesting. That’s a huge asset to us, to have people on our staff that have that ability.”
Godbold was named CEO for Niswonger Children’s Hospital in the fall of last year, and ever since then, he has seen first-hand the need to pull what he calls the “medical aspect” away from children’s experiences at the facility.
“It’s been a wild ride,” he said. “But this place is so unique. There’s a huge difference in a ‘hospital’ and a ‘children’s hospital.’”
In fact, just about every kind of physician who cares for adults in a “normal hospital” has a counterpart trained specifically to work with children, and Niswonger Children’s Hospital sees doctors in most of those different fields walking down its brightly-lit corridors each day, Godbold said.
“We have pediatric specialists in a vast number of fields that look out specifically for children’s interests,” Godbold added. “We have pulmonologists, cardiologists, opthamologists, infectious disease specialists and we even just recruited a pediatric geneticist.”
Godbold said that in spite of the need for highly specialized health care providers in the children’s hospital, the country is actually experiencing a shortage of physicians specifically trained in pediatrics.
“There used to be federal programs geared toward training upcoming pediatric specialists and helping them with their education,” Godbold commented. “But the federal government’s new health care reform has caused programs like that to be abandoned. It’s really unfortunate.”
The facility has close to 70 beds which, depending on the season, can fill up quickly. Godbold said that winter months often push the facility to seek extra space for an influx of patients, while summer months don’t see as many children admitted.
In addition to brightly-colored walls and uplifting decor, Godbold pointed out that most of the physicians shed their white lab coats in favor of more “fun” attire that sets children’s minds at ease.
In addition to the activities citizens might expect to go on within the walls of Niswonger Children’s Hospital, representatives at the facility also work tireless to advocate for programs catering to children’s interests in health care, Godbold said.
“We have advocates for programs such as Medicaid, and those people take the fight to the national level, and they work hard to get these kids insurance coverage across state lines,” Godbold said.
The facility is also an affiliate of the Memphis-based St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, which Godbold said allows the families with sick children to have a closer place to receive treatment.
“St. Jude’s started setting up affiliate clinics in the mid-90s,” Godbold said. “It’s good for families that need their services to be able to come here and be closer to home. That way, they don’t have to uproot and leave their support networks of family and friends. They can get all of their follow-up care right here.”
Godbold added that a good number of children from Unicoi County have benefited from care at Niswonger Children’s Hospital, and he said that he would like to foster a relationship between NCH and Unicoi County Memorial Hospital in the future.
“We’re always looking to grow and add more partners to our cause,” he said. “What you see now is not what you’ll see in five years. We hope to have grown exponentially by that time.”
NCH also features a fully-functional, self-sustained children’s emergency department, where parents may bring children in emergency situations. Erwin resident Shane O’Hare, who serves as communications and marketing director for Mountain States Health Alliance, said the facility is top-notch.
“When it comes to my own children, I want to make sure that they’re getting the best care in the region,” O’Hare said. “Small people have very different needs than adults, and they require a very specialized approach in health care. I fully believe in this facility.”
Godbold said that while he does not want to undermine the importance of other hospitals in the area, he agreed with O’Hare that NCH provides a different level of care for a different kind of patient.
“There seems to be a notion in health care that kids are just miniature versions of adults with the same needs,” Godbold said. “But kids are kids, and we know kids here. Most of the time if an adult hospital is having an issue with a child patient, we’re the ones they’re calling.
“We have four pediatric emergency medicine specialists out of 1,000 total of those in the whole world.”
Godbold also discussed the hospital’s neo-natal intensive care unit which, unlike similar units at adult hospitals, allows the bonding process between the baby and its parents to begin almost right away, with private rooms and a single bed per room.
Niswonger Children’s Hospital serves approximately 230,000 children in 29 counties, and across four states: northeastern Tennessee, southwestern Virginia, southeastern Kentucky and western North Carolina.