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    Hospitals find red wagons help ease children's tension

    The comfy Radio Flyers at area hospitals soothe sick children when going to have X-rays, heading to their bed or to a play room.

    [Times photo: Krystal Kinnunen]
    Matthieu Jefferson, 9, follows Tampa General Hospital volunteer Michelle Orf as she returns 7-month-old Jacob Boatfield to his room in a red wagon after their weekly picnic.

    By TAMARA LUSH, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 9, 2002

    TAMPA -- Last week, Chase Wells didn't want to ride in the wagon.

    To anyone but Chase and the people who love him, this is not news. But for Chase, who is 41/2, it is a very big deal.

    The Radio Flyer wagon, which is parked on the fifth floor of Tampa General Hospital, is used to roll Chase all over the building.

    He has ridden in the wagon since he was about a year old, long after he was diagnosed with necrotizing intracolitis and had to have his intestines removed.

    Infections force him to return to the hospital every few months. The wagons have carried him to the playroom, to his hospital bed, to the X-ray machine.

    "It was easier to put him in the wagon because he wasn't scared," said his grandmother, Lyn Wells, of Tampa. "He did not want to ride in a wheelchair. He associated it with uncomfortable feelings."

    Like hospitals around the country, Tampa General uses wagons to soothe sick children. St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa and All Children's in St. Petersburg also use them.

    The colorful wagons are an unusual, happy sight in the middle of a sterile hospital corridor. The childhood memories of a wagon -- of innocent fun -- are at odds with the reality of what may be going on with the child sitting inside the wagon.

    Which is why hospitals use them.

    "It's just a lot less threatening to a child to climb into a red wagon to go to radiology," said Ann Miller, media relations manager for All Children's.

    Each hospital has a stable of wagons. Tampa General has five, although the number dwindles every few months. Sometimes, when a child's stay is over, parents load toys, books and stuffed animals into the wagon -- and wheel it right into the family van.

    These are not the Radio Flyers of the past. They are sturdy and roomy. They are made out of plastic and have fat wheels and no sharp edges.

    Infants like the wagons best. Hospital staff line the wagon with blankets and pillows, and tuck the baby inside.

    Jacob Boatfield, 7 months, has an IV in his tiny foot. He goes to the TGH Child Life Center -- the playroom -- in the wagon. His IV pole is rolled alongside.

    Specially equipped wagons with IV poles exist, but they cost $475 and most hospitals can't afford them. No hospital in Tampa Bay has the so-called Medwagons, although TGH wants to seek grant money to buy a few, said Nicole Lightsey, a child life specialist. The wagons used in local hospitals cost about $100.

    While many kids think riding in the wagons is a treat, not riding in them also is special. It often means the children are growing up, and maybe even getting well.

    Chase, for instance, has almost outgrown the idea of being toted around. Since he started walking about a year ago, he plays outside and runs and falls down just like any other kid.

    Even when he is in the hospital, he doesn't slow down. Not now.

    "No wagon," Chase says firmly, then tears down the hospital corridor in his tiny hospital gown. Occasionally, he will load the wagon with toys or videos and lug it to the playroom. He feels more in control that way, Lightsey said.

    Chase has a new mode of hospital transportation: a foot-propelled plastic car. Tampa General has a fleet of those, parked outside the playroom.

    Like Fred Flintstone, Chase climbs into the car and moves his feet fast, careening down the hallways. Sometimes he lives up to his name and chases people.

    "Anybody who gets in his way," said his grandmother.

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