Healing, Football, and the Power of Sight in the Patient Experience

Green and white. Black and gold. At 825 Stadium Drive in Iowa City, these are the colors that fill your vision. On certain fall Saturdays Kinnick Stadium, home of the University of Iowa Hawkeyes football team, transforms itself from the synthetic fibers in its turf into a living, breathing organism full of players and fans, groups of cells all aligned with one pursuit in their hearts: one more yard, one more day, one more breath.

“At least Saturday’s coming”

Seventeen-year-old Daxon Phippen knows this pursuit well. He knows it with each milestone achieved while healing in a U of I Hawkeyes-decorated room at 200 Hawkins Drive, right across the street from Kinnick Stadium. There, at University of Iowa Stead Family Children's Hospital, you can see Daxon working to complete his recovery following cranial surgery. The hospital is part of the 2014 Davies Award-winning University of Iowa Health System.

There in his room, with his mother, Lori, at his side, you can see Daxon working tirelessly to regain functions and agency back into his life, to be able to use his hands to dress himself, to be able to move around the room unassisted. From Monday through Friday, Daxon may find glory or defeat on his road to recovery. Often, he finds both. No matter what happens during the week, for Daxon, “at least Saturday’s coming.”

Being an inpatient at a hospital is a rare and complex experience. It is an intense time, filled with fear and vulnerability. It is a moment of feeling alone – even as caregivers surround you. It is a moment of doubt amongst the veneer of certainty of youth, of our next breath. It is a moment in which many patients just like Daxon search for a sign, look for a connection to something larger than they are, willing them to fight, to stay and battle on the field of life. It doesn’t have to seem like much. A mere gesture, a simple flick of the wrist. But a gesture that for all those who witness it buoys their strength and resolve to keep battling, to keep healing.

“No one plans a visit to a kids’ hospital”

Coach Kirk Ferentz, head coach of University of Iowa’s football team, knows well of battles that take place every fall Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. Kirk also knows of the battles that take place across the street at the children’s hospital, as well. As he told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi earlier this fall, “Nobody plans on a visit to a kids’ hospital. It’s not something you schedule or want to go through.”

One day in 2014, Kirk and his wife, Mary, found themselves walking the hospital’s hallways. They were searching for their son, Brian, and his wife, Nikki, who had gone into labor with daughter, Savvy Elizabeth Ferentz, at just 21 weeks and five days. Kirk and Mary sat in family waiting rooms, and by Nikki’s and Savvy’s beds with the same helpless, hopeful fear that so many parents feel while waiting for news.

Savvy took breath for only two days. But that is not the entire story, the entire truth. Because each Saturday, you can see her breath well up in the chest of patients like her; other children being cared for in the hospital, as they line the windows of the hospital’s 12th floor at the end of the first quarter of a football home game. You can see her breath well up in the chests of 70,000 Iowa football fans, as they are asked to turn away from the game, toward the hospital, and give a “big Hawkeye wave” to the patients and their families stationed on the 12th floor observation deck. As Coach Ferentz describes,“it’s just such a nice way for 70,000 people to recognize some really special people” as “…a salute to those kids and their parents and family members. It just kind of brings it all home, what’s important.” The sight of an empathic salute of support from one battle’s warriors to another’s.

“It’s more than just a wave”

Lori Phippen describes that moment in her son’s healing journey. “It’s almost like a wave of hope, like you’re not in this on your own,” she said. It is the sight of a mere gesture, a simple flick of the wrist, a single signal of empathy and support, a simple and profound way to help patients and caregivers like Daxon and Lori know that they are surrounded by people who care and who want to help them heal. As Daxon clearly states, “It’s more than just a wave.”

The sight of the wave, however, isn’t the only way University of Iowa football players, coaches and fans illustrate their support of children and their families at the campus children’s hospital. Adding to a $1 million grant given in Savvy Elizabeth Ferentz’s name by Kirk and Mary Ferentz for neonatal research focused on improving survival rates for premature babies, Iowa football players regularly visit with the hospital’s children as they fight a whole range of different wounds and battles. It is in those moments of showing and sharing their strength during patients’ vulnerable moments, their determination during patients’ moments of uncertainty, and the power of a team of determined individuals focusing in pursuit of one clear goal: that the noblest parts of football and healthcare shine together, like the smart phones of University of Iowa football fans during games at dusk when they wave them as part of their big Hawkeye wave toward the hospital, cellular stars lighting up the night and the soul of all those witnessing this miraculous moment.

Showing patients that you care

What happens between the hospital’s patients and the fans at the end of the first quarter is a testament to the power of sight in a patient’s healing experience. Countless patients and their families seeing the green and white. The black and gold. The visible love and support of 70,000 people, a living, breathing organism all with one pursuit in their hearts, at that moment the healing of those in the hospital’s care and their loved ones.

Look around your own hospitals. What are you seeing that transmits the message of support to your patients? How is what you see impacting the care you deliver and the care your patients receive? Are they seeing happy clinicians, working in environments that encourage the joy of care? Are they seeing a hospital culture that encourages teamwork and respect among the many players in a hospital’s care delivery supply chain? Are they seeing your hospital’s community of healing signaling and sharing their strength, showing their support to your patients and their loved ones like these Hawkeye fans do?

I challenge you to find ways for patients and their families, for children like Daxon Phippen, mothers like Lori Phippen, and grandfathers like Kirk Ferentz to see the empathy of those in service to their health and to their healing.

Show the empathy to them so they can gain strength from seeing it. Show it to them so you can see how much your care means to them. Show it so we can together fight for one more yard, one more day, one more breath.