Designing space for health and well-being

Patio at VCU Children's Hospital with nurses, staff gathered

Rhode Baptiste has two parallel paths that have guided her life. Growing up in Haiti, she watched her mom, a seamstress, create custom garments for people. It inspired an interest in design that often infused Baptiste’s hobbies.

At the same time, Baptiste was curious about public health and went on to study nursing. She started a career in pediatric nursing at the University of Virginia Medical Center. A few years later, in 2017, she moved to Richmond to work in long-term pediatric care at VCU Health.

But questions about how physical environments can influence a person’s health and well-being continued to nag her.

One morning in late 2018, out of curiosity, she started exploring interior design programs.

“I wondered what those programs are like. I wondered what a career path for an interior designer is like,” she says. “I wasn’t really familiar with VCU’s academics, because I felt super new to Richmond. And then VCU popped up and I thought, ‘I’m already an employee here; this could work.’”

On a whim, she decided to apply and was accepted to the graduate program in VCUarts’ Department of Interior Design. Soon after, she transitioned from her full-time nursing position at VCU Health to a part-time, weekend role that allowed her to focus on interior design during the week.

That’s when her parallel paths began to intersect.

Her classmates expected she’d be interested in health care design, but Baptiste initially resisted. She wanted to approach interior design with an open mind. She is curious about residential and commercial design, developing communities, working with sustainable materials, and applying design expertise in a global context.

However, as she spent her weekdays in design classes and her weekends working in the hospital, she began to notice how the design of hospitals supported—or, in some cases, didn’t—the health of patients, staff, and caregivers.

Headshot of Rhode Baptiste
Rhode Baptiste

“I thought about ways that the environment can help us be more efficient in what we do as caregivers, and promote a better sense of health in us and for the patients coming in to get care.”

She reflected on the different environments where she had worked. She thought about how supply storage could be a far walk from patients’ rooms. She noted that parents didn’t always have space to engage with siblings during long visits. She considered how a room’s layout might impact cleaning staff. She saw how bright, beautiful spaces were often inviting for visitors, while staff breakrooms with no windows offered little chance for a mental recharge during a stressful day.

“It pushed me to think about how everyone interacts with a space—not necessarily just patients,” she says. “I thought about ways that the environment can help us be more efficient in what we do as caregivers, and promote a better sense of health in us and for the patients coming in to get care.”

The COVID-19 crisis has further reinforced the need for thoughtfully designed health care spaces, particularly in her experience in long-term pediatric care. Parents who visited daily were suddenly restricted to video calls and looking through windows. Social distancing rules mean nurses must maintain distance from patients, and from one another. And a relentless pace means little room for staff to process what’s happening around them.

“As a nurse, I’m used to things rapidly changing. I’m used to showing up to work knowing anything can happen,” she says. “But it’s also new protocols related to this novel virus and having to change the different routines in how we used to do things.”

Baptiste continues to have an open mind about where interior design might take her, but working in a hospital during a pandemic has renewed her passion for understanding how built environments can promote the health of patients, the happiness of families, and the support and retention of providers.

“I still care deeply for contributing to a healthier work environment and understanding how it’s easy for the work to overwhelm you,” she says. “It’s a lot of physical stress and mental stress and emotional drain. But I think at the core of it, we went into this profession because we enjoy caring for people, and helping people get well, and empowering people to take better care of themselves.”