At her 18-week prenatal appointment, Little associate Nicole Norris and her husband, Thomas, received news that no expectant parents want to hear. A routine anatomy scan revealed their baby had kidney abnormalities. As the pregnancy progressed, the couple and their medical team realized the issues were likely to be severe and, at birth, their baby would need immediate NICU care.
Nicole originally planned to deliver at Atrium Health University because it was close to home. Her doctor encouraged the Charlotte, NC-based couple to switch to Atrium Health Carolinas Medical Center (CMC). CMC houses a Level 4 NICU, the largest in the Carolinas. Odds were that the Norris’ baby would require that highest level of care. If they stayed at University, they risked the possibility of the baby needing an emergency transfer to CMC. Subsequently, Nicole would be left behind at University—unable to see her baby until she had recovered. It was a scenario that she could not fathom. The couple made the switch.
REWIND TO FALL OF 2020
As a healthcare designer at Little, Nicole prioritizes the patient and staff experience in every project. A well-designed healthcare facility puts patients at ease while maximizing functionality for staff. When she joined the team to design the Atrium Health Maternity Center at CMC, Nicole was eager to take on the challenge of modernizing the floor. In a rapidly evolving industry like healthcare, facilities can quickly lose functionality.
For example, until the early 2000s, it was common practice for babies to go to the hospital nursery after birth. However, research has shown how critical it is to have a baby close to the mom for those first days. Babies staying in-room with their mothers also offers more privacy and security. CMC’s nursery was large and designed to accommodate a bassinet for every baby on the unit, which had become unnecessary and underutilized.
Nicole and her team at Little worked closely with Atrium Health to design a complete Maternity Center consisting of an OB triage area, labor and delivery rooms, and a right-sized nursery. The team carefully contemplated multiple scenarios and ideal ways to provide care. For Nicole, this meant designing the safest environment (i.e., rooms large enough for life-saving equipment) in a way that would calm and reassure patients and their partners.
Patient comfort and dignity were high priorities. By code, triage rooms do not have to be private or provide an in-room bathroom. However, designing these spaces with patient experience at the forefront—not requiring the patient to walk down a hallway in a hospital gown, allowing the patient to have private conversations with their partner and medical team, and not hearing another woman in labor—was crucial to Atrium Health and the Little team.
Construction was completed in phases, allowing the floor to continue operations. During the final inspection, Nicole combed through the space and analyzed every detail, much like she had done during the design process. However, she now had a new perspective. She was pregnant. Even though she thought she would never experience the space, she hoped it was nice for those who do.
AGAINST ALL ODDS
While Nicole knew she would not carry her baby to term, she expected to be induced at 32 weeks, once the lungs were more viable. Doctors assured her that going into early labor was extremely unlikely.
Two days after Thanksgiving, at 3:00 AM, Nicole’s water broke. She was 30 weeks pregnant. When she and her husband arrived at CMC, Nicole was wheeled down a hallway to OB triage—a hallway she designed. Her mind flooded with flashbacks: design meetings where she and the team contemplated how patients would feel as they got transported down this same passage and the challenges experienced with securing certain materials due to pandemic-related supply chain issues. It was a welcome distraction from the uncertainty ahead.
Once in triage, Nicole was evaluated and given medicine to keep her from going further into labor, along with steroid shots to boost the baby’s lung development. Scared and unsure of the outcome, Nicole was grateful for the private space. After two hours of monitoring, she moved to an antepartum room, where she remained on bedrest for the next week.
At 31 weeks, Killian Norris was born at 4lbs 1oz and immediately taken to the NICU for his first of several kidney procedures. Miraculously, his lungs were fine.
A MORE CONFIDENT, EMPATHETIC DESIGNER
These days, Killian is doing exceptionally well. Nicole beams as she shares that he is home now and weighing in at a whopping 10 lbs. In her words, he’s “a big ol’ chunk.”
She and her husband sat by Killian’s side in the NICU for over 300 hours. During that time, she often reflected on the uniqueness of how each patient experiences the hospital. The anxiety of having a baby, which is magnified by knowing the baby will be critically ill. The terror of delivering a baby too early. For every new family who leaves the hospital with a healthy newborn, there is a family who goes home without one. Returning to the hospital every day to see—yet, not hold—your child. Knowing what she knows now, how would she approach the design process differently to create a space that works well for each of those experiences?
Nicole has developed a superhero-like vision, allowing her to envision a space and immediately zero in on its nuances. She practiced it on some level in her previous work at Little but now finds her attention to detail amplified. It’s the ability to tap into how different people might experience a space. For example, waiting rooms. The design of a waiting room in a medical office building where patients sit for fifteen minutes before being called back to their appointment should be very different from those for family members waiting for their loved ones to come out of hours-long surgery.
She shares a funny insight about how she created the renderings for the Maternity Center entry signage so new parents would know exactly where to go when they arrived at the hospital. However, when her husband pulled in, he immediately asked for directions, completely missing the big, obvious sign. She now understands firsthand how she is designing for people who may be experiencing panic and extreme emotions, and not functioning under normal circumstances. Understanding time, place, and the level of care given in a particular setting is paramount.
Because of Killian’s time in the NICU, Nicole developed a rapport with the nurses. When they discovered what she did for a living, they were eager to share how much they loved the new nursery. “It is beautiful,” she remembers one nurse sharing, “You can run a code in there so easily.” Beauty and functionality—that’s the ultimate goal.
Over the weeks, Nicole chatted candidly with more nurses about their daily challenges and how the design of their space can help or hinder their performance. She is grateful for how this insight has broadened her perspective.
For Nicole, this deeply personal experience has become a powerful motivator in her professional life. She returned to work earlier this month. Her return from maternity leave feels bittersweet, yet she is eager to put her newfound revelations into action—after one more baby snuggle.