New WHEE Wagon Program to aid children in the region

Madeleine Whitfield (left), accompanied by WCU School of Nursing assistant professor Susan Hester, takes the WHEE Wagon for a spin.

Madeleine Whitfield (left), accompanied by WCU School of Nursing assistant professor Susan Hester, takes the WHEE Wagon for a spin.

What do you get when you put Western Carolina University nursing students and communication students together with a children’s wagon equipped with an IV pole?

You get the WHEE Wagon Program, which began this spring and is dedicated to giving medically fragile children wagons with IV poles to grant them the opportunity to play and just be a kid. Picture the iconic Radio Flyer wagon with an IV pole attached.

While working as a pediatric nurse at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Susan Hester became aware of a wagon with an IV pole attached to it that was used to transport children around the hospital.

After coming to WCU, where she is an assistant professor with the School of Nursing and oversees the WHEE Wagon Program, Hester wanted to bring the cleverly designed wagons to Western North Carolina to divert young patients’ attention away from pain sensation, a strategy called nonpharmacological distraction.

“We know through studies that nonpharmacological distraction is one of the most effective techniques for pain control in alleviating anxiety in children,” Hester said. “We also know from studies that it is vastly underutilized. This is a program to basically facilitate that in the pediatric community.”

With the help of Roger Leggett, who was manufacturing the wagons for Children’s Healthcare, Hester and the WCU School of Nursing went to work during the spring semester. By the end of the semester, students and faculty members came up with the WHEE Wagon Program.

Three senior nursing students (Kaleigh Phillips of Lake Toxaway, Valleri Gospodinoff of Flat Rock and Taylor Johnson of Sylva) who worked on the project as part of their service learning were instrumental in operationalizing the program, while a pair of communication students who graduated in May _ Brandon Allen of Lincolnton and Christina Bridgeman of Stony Point _ conceptualized the program, coming up with the name, graphics, and how to do the presentations on its usage. This fall, Phillips, Gospodinoff and Johnson requested to return to help with fundraising.

Unlike situations in which young patients mostly remain in bed, or in a wheelchair, the WHEE wagon allows the hospitalized or homebound child to receive his or her IV medications or fluids, or be connected to other medical equipment such as a feeding pump, while also reconnecting with the everyday world of being a child. The WHEE wagons will be distributed free of charge. The first one was donated to Mission Children’s Hospital in Asheville at the end of spring semester.

“We’re starting out with Mission because they’re the largest children’s hospital in the area,” Hester said. “However, we have big plans. We would like to provide health departments with wagons that they could check out to children who need home therapy, which is becoming more and more common. We also want to be able to give them to medically fragile day cares and outpatient facilities.”

The wagons cost $200 for a permanently attached IV pole, which is suitable for hospitals, or $250 for one with a detachable pole that makes transporting the wagon easier. The brackets used to attach the poles are custom designed and custom welded. The brackets and poles are made of medical-grade stainless steel. Each wagon has a placard attached with the name of the donor. They require special ink that won’t come off when the wagons are given antimicrobial baths in the hospitals.

“The wagons have been approved through the bioengineering department for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, which is really the ‘in’ to get the wagons into a lot of these hospitals,” Hester said. “When they hear that a well-established hospital has accepted these wagons, then a lot of times it’s very easy to get them into other facilities.”

This fall, Hester and a new group of students will start looking into aggressive fundraising in order to give away more wagons. Her initial goal of giving away one to three wagons a year has since changed to four to six.

Those interested in making a donation, or purchasing a wagon can do so by contacting Hester at swhester@wcu.edu, or by calling 828-227-2898.