Childhood cancer patients and their families find a home away from home

With AbbVie’s $50 million donation, St. Jude opens a new home-like environment where patient families can relax, recover and connect

For the families of children battling childhood cancer and other catastrophic diseases, days are often all but typical.  

On top of coping with the emotional weight of a diagnosis, patient families spend days in and out of appointments, meeting with doctors, getting tests and receiving treatment. 

“Sometimes you’ll go into the hospital at eight in the morning and you’ll be there all day. You might have a break but it’s usually not long enough for you to go home and rest. Or, you think you’re going in for a quick check-up and suddenly find your child needs something else, and now you’re there for six hours,” said Paula Elsener, a mother to a three-time cancer survivor at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

For Elsner and other patient families at St. Jude, days like these can extend over weeks or even months, leaving them limited opportunities to refuel, rest and take care of themselves. Seeing their struggles, clinical care providers at St. Jude and leaders at AbbVie saw an opportunity to support the non-clinical needs of patients and families – and took action.  

This month, AbbVie and St. Jude opened Family Commons, the first-ever treatment-free and clinical-staff-free floor at St. Jude, offering patients and families a home-like space to find comfort and respite in between clinic appointments. The design and construction of Family Commons was funded by a historic $50 million donation from AbbVie. AbbVie’s donation has also supported non-clinical services, such as music therapy and school programming, that will continue in Family Commons.

AbbVie’s donation to St. Jude was driven by its commitment to giving back to individuals and communities in need, a defining part of the company’s culture. Since AbbVie was founded in 2013, it has donated almost $650 million and has served communities all around the world through employee giving and volunteerism. The donation to St. Jude is part of a broader, multi-year $350-million commitment AbbVie made in 2018 to nine charitable nonprofits.

“AbbVie is deeply committed to helping patients and their families thrive and we recognize the unique needs for families as their child receives medical treatment,” said Claudia Carravetta, vice president of corporate responsibility and global philanthropy, AbbVie. “We are so proud that our partnership with St. Jude supports patient families as they navigate one of the most difficult challenges imaginable, so they can focus on what is most important: the health and well-being of their child.”

Key features of Family Commons

Family Commons will open to patient families on February 7, 2023. Entering the 45,000-square-foot space, children and parents will find a multitude of areas where they can recover, connect with each other, play, nap and get the support they need between clinical appointments.  

 Incredible new features in the Family Commons include:

  • New pre-K to high school classroom spaces, including a science lab and library
  • Reading alcoves, resting nooks, recording studio and maker space
  • Art room with a balloon-like ceiling that illuminates in different colors
  • Indoor and outdoor play areas
  • Private rooms for families to rest or relax in between appointments at the hospital
  • Cafe with coffee and snacks for patient families to reconnect and recharge
  • Stained-glass–adorned sacred space offering a quiet place for reflection, prayer and meditation
  • Centralized patient and housing services to meet the unique needs of families
  • Event space for meetings of the patient and family advisory council and parent classes
  • Parent-to-parent mentor meeting space, tech support center, and childcare

Incorporating patient voices in the design approach

From the music room to the sacred space, every room of the Family Commons was developed with intention, considering what would be most impactful to patients and families and make their journey a little easier. 

“AbbVie has been an incredible partner in that they've been with us every step of the way,  making sure that all the details are appropriate and that they're going to meet the needs of our patients and their families,” says Richard C. Shadyac Jr., the president and CEO of ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude.

To ensure patients’ needs were reflected, partners worked closely with the St. Jude Patient Family Advisory Council (PFAC), a voluntary advisory group that includes family members of current and former patients. Council members were engaged from the start, giving feedback on renderings, colors, fixtures and more, says Janice English, director of the Patient and Family Experience Office, St. Jude.

“We even went so far as to bring in some of the furniture pieces to patient families and had family members sit in them and give us input on what was comfortable and what was not,” she says.

Patient families provided feedback not only on appearance and comfort but also on how well features would support the specialized needs of their children, some of whom are immunocompromised, visually impaired or in a wheelchair.  

“As a cancer patient mom, one of my biggest concerns was infection protection. I wanted to know that the materials and furniture I would sit on would to be safe for my immunocompromised child,” said Elsener, a member and former chair of the St. Jude PFAC.

How design features support both patient and family needs

The design of Family Commons considers both the needs of patients as well as their parents and caregivers, some of whom work and/or care for multiple children. In areas like the classroom spaces and maker space, children who are patients have the chance to continue to learn alongside their peers or siblings when they can’t be in school with them. Meanwhile, areas like the parent-to-parent mentor space are tailored to support parents by giving them a space where they can connect and receive support from one another.

In some cases, rooms serve a dual purpose to meet wide-ranging needs. The resting nooks, private rooms for families to rest or relax in between appointments at the hospital, are one example. According to English, the nooks are among the features patient families say they’re most excited for.

“There was this need among families to have a quiet place to care for their young toddlers and have a space for emerging adults to be on their own, away from the typical noise of a hospital. So, we had to figure out how to create a space that would work for the 6-foot-tall teen and a mother with her toddler. The resting nooks were our answer,” says English.

Resting nooks include features like dimmable lights and white noise for parents needing to put their children to sleep. They also include desks spaces where teens can hop onto their laptops or charge their phones or where parents can work while their child is resting.  

“When the patient-family voice is incorporated into decisions and policies and procedures at the hospital, it not only improves the medical care of that child but also the morale and the outcome for that patient,” Elsener said.


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