This Arizona hospital was worried about burnout, so it built a compassion center for its employees

By Mark Brodie
Published: Tuesday, May 9, 2023 - 11:35am

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Banner University Medicine
Katherine Davis-Young/KJZZ
Banner University Medicine in Phoenix.

Banner University Medical Center recently opened what officials there believe is a first-of-its-kind concept: a compassion center.

Dr. Cheryl O’Malley, professor of internal medicine and the associate dean for graduate medical education for the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix, says the idea is to provide a space for everyone who provides care in the hospital and surrounding clinics.

"We hope that they pause to be able to have a moment to breathe and reflect. And whatever that might be. And we think that they may feel some connection with others, because they’ll recognize that others in that space similarly are needing a pause," said O’Malley.

The center has massage chairs, puzzles, live plants and a lending library, among other amenities. O’Malley says the key is that it’s not just for doctors and nurses, but also for café and gift shop workers, billing department employees, custodians and anyone else working in the hospital.

Poetry pharma
Mark Brodie/KJZZ
Dr. Cheryl O’Malley says the idea of a compassion center is to provide a space for everyone who provides care in the hospital and surrounding clinics.

"We invited focus groups and we highlighted all of the different services, and invited them in, and that was what we found when they were in the space before it had been renovated was, 'Oh, this is gonna be for us, too?'" said O’Malley.

O’Malley says there’ve been conversations about wellness and burnout in health care settings for some time — and those discussions were heightened significantly during the pandemic, she says.

It was also around that time that Rosemarie Dombrowski was thinking about opening something called a poetry pharmacy. Phoenix’s initial poet laureate had heard a story about something similar opening pre-CVOID-19 in the U.K. and was intrigued. So, when she was approached about being involved in the compassion center, she offered the idea.

Rosemarie Dombrowski
Rosemarie Dombrowski
Rosemarie Dombrowski.

The center has a wall that houses the pill bottles filled with poems. Dombrowski, director of revisionary arts, a therapeutic poetry nonprofit, talked with The Show about what research tells us about the potential healing impacts of poetry.

Dombrowski also a teaching professor at Arizona State University and associate clinical professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine.

In addition to the poetry pharmacy, the walls of the compassion center include art that you wouldn’t normally find in a hospital. O’Malley says that choice was intentional. The first display, in fact, was produced by a patient. She says she’s hopeful hospital employees will be able to take a moment — even if it’s just a moment — for themselves, which she believes will then help those around them.

singular poetry pharma bottle
Mark Brodie/KJZZ
The compassion center includes a poetry pharmacy.

"So it could be that you’re act of compassion is toward yourself. It could also be that your act of compassion is toward a colleague who you see is struggling. Or to a patient," said O’Malley. "But through that, it’s enhancing the well-being of the person who is acting to relieve the suffering as well as the individual who is suffering."

O’Malley considers the compassion center part mental-health respite, part community-building. She says she’s open to ideas for expanding it, either there or at other facilities, although she points out that space is always at a premium in health care, so officials will have to learn a bit more about how it’s working and being used before making any decisions about that.

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