Invention enables immune suppressed children to “play dirty” in the hospital

UNC Children’s welcomes the debut of WonderSphere, a first-of-its-kind, portable apparatus that allows hospitalized children hands-on experience with nature, working with plants and dirt. The airtight, transparent chamber is the brainchild of Wonder Connection, a program bringing the wonders of science to the bedsides of hospitalized children, and was born of a collaboration among Wonder Connection, UNC Hospitals Epidemiology Department, N.C. State University engineering students, and a product design firm.

Invention enables immune suppressed children to “play dirty” in the hospital click to enlarge Stoudemire works with Taylon, studying the Venus fly trap inside WonderSphere.

Pediatric patients with compromised immune systems cannot be taken outside or exposed to the microbes found in soil and live plants. Katie Stoudemire—whose program, Wonder Connection, which finds innovative ways to inspire hospitalized patients with science and nature—sought a way around this.

The idea came to her a decade ago, as she began thinking about how isolettes work to isolate premature babies in the neonatal intensive care unit and control their environment.

“We wanted to adapt that idea to bring the garden to immunocompromised children,” says Stoudemire, whose program is part of the North Carolina Botanical Garden. “We thought, ‘Let’s put the plant and natural materials inside the chamber, and the child can work in it from the outside.”

Stoudemire knew the idea was a good one and that, if done properly, it would help pediatric inpatients experience nature. She sought advice from epidemiologists at UNC Hospitals and eventually received funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and North Carolina GlaxoSmithKline Foundation. She received early design assistance from engineering students at N.C. State University and hired Bresslergroup, a Philadelphia-based product design firm.

“Protecting our patients is our most important job,” says Elizabeth Walters, an infection preventionist at UNC Hospitals. “So finding a safe way for our pediatric patients to do this science lesson was our top priority. Katie’s dedication to the idea, and her commitment to both serve and protect our patients, let us know that WonderSphere could be a safe option for our most immunocompromised patients with the right design.”

The final product has been delivered, and it is airtight, with all necessary precautions taken to protect patients.

Today, Stoudemire is using WonderSphere to inspire patients at N.C. Children’s Hospital, connecting them with nature and helping them through health challenges that can leave them feeling isolated. One such patient, 8-year-old Taylon, explored WonderSphere with Stoudemire during a hospital stay that spanned several weeks earlier this fall. Lengthy hospitalizations aren’t uncommon for Taylon, who has cystic fibrosis.

“He was thrilled to be able to touch real Venus fly traps—‘snappy plants,’ as he calls them,” says Stoudemire. “His biggest question for the rest of that day was, ‘When can we do it again?’”