Published On: Fri, Feb 19th, 2010
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WCU Students participate in Cherokee Hospital Room Makeover

SUBMITTED By WCU

CULLOWHEE—Students in a Western Carolina University interior design course centered on small-scale commercial projects were invited this spring to help plan a makeover for an inpatient room and an emergency room at the 18-bed Cherokee Indian Hospital.

From left, Jody Adams, a public relations officer from Cherokee Indian Hospital; discusses hospital design ideas proposed by Western Carolina University students Stephanie Sitton, Emma Evans and Schuyler Wack. (Photo courtesy of Teresa Killian Tate/WCU)

Part of the challenge for students examining the two hospital rooms was how to make highly regulated, equipment-heavy spaces feel comfortable and welcoming, and they were challenged selecting the best colors, patterns, artwork and furniture that tribal members served by the hospital would find peaceful and healing, and that would honor their community and culture.

“We wanted the people who occupy the spaces to feel better about where they are and who they are,” said Stephanie Sitton, a junior interior design major from Greensboro.

After the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians assumed ownership of the facility through a 2002 compact with the Indian Health Service, leaders began an effort to create a more welcoming, more “Cherokee” space for the community. With funding from Cherokee Preservation Foundation grants, once-white walls were repainted earth tones. Hospital décor was expanded to include more nature-themed artwork and Cherokee language.

The initiative, however, is not complete, and Jody Adams, a hospital public relations officer, was in search of fresh ideas when she contacted WCU. She had been thinking about a reality TV show in which aspiring interior designers develop different design proposals for the same space and wondering if there was an opportunity to involve interior design students with the Cherokee Indian Hospital redesign.

“I thought designing a room at the hospital might be a challenging project for students and something that we at the hospital also could benefit and learn from,” said Adams.

Candace Roberts, assistant professor of interior design, was excited about the opportunity to expose the cohort of interior design students under her direction to their first health care design project.

“Involving students in real community projects has multiple benefits,” said Roberts. “Not only are students improving their research skills, but also listening and fulfilling the needs of the client – something they will be doing when they enter the profession. In addition, they will have a real client to list on their resumes.” 

The first step was for students to visit the hospital, interview the clients, measure the rooms and take pictures of existing conditions. They observed how Cherokee themes already had been incorporated in the hospital’s design and researched tribe’s history, culture and traditions. The groups also noted hospital guidelines and regulations, the Americans with Disabilities Act and design limitations, such as where equipment needed to be.

“This project required a lot of research, and I learned so much about Cherokee culture,” said Sitton. “We studied symbolism in color and direction, and found that the Cherokee people are very in touch with the earth and their spirituality. Nature elements were the main focus of our design. The project also inspired me to want to take a class on Cherokee culture here at WCU.”

Schuyler Wack, a junior interior design major from Asheville, said the assignment felt like a real-world project. “Until this point, we had been basing many of our aesthetic choices on our own preferences, with little or no regard to budget,” said Wack.

In February, student groups presented their ideas to Adams, and she took notes and looked through their proposals. Features included green colors and warm earth tones; furniture that allowed storage, seating and sleeping for overnight guests; recessed lighting; heated massage recliners for relaxation; and furniture upholstered with nature-themed fabric. Proposed artwork ranged from modern pieces by Cherokee artists to deer antlers. Some groups incorporated ceiling designs in the emergency room – a painted canopy of leaves or mural of the sky. One suggested a water feature, citing Cherokee beliefs associating water with healing.

Adams commented on the ideas that grabbed her attention, which she will convey to others at the hospital for consideration. She also noted some items that might need to be adapted to work – a feature that would be hard to keep clean and sterile, for instance

“Thank you for sharing a lot of great ideas and beautiful concepts,” Adams told the students. “It was a great experience for me, and I hope it was a learning experience for you as well.”

Laura Paap, a junior from Hickory, said one of the highlights was hearing actual feedback from an actual client, while Jennifer Oakey, a junior from Andrews, said she enjoyed getting to design for an actual purpose. Wack said his group kept in mind how their efforts could benefit patients, their families and employees, and Sitton said it felt they were actually making a difference in the community.

“This project made me realize that hospital design is a worthy cause,” she said. “We can truly make an impact in people’s lives.”

For more information, contact Roberts at 828-227-2151 or croberts@wcu.edu.

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