For Working Parents with a Sick Child, Hospital Day Care Centers May Spell Instant Relief

updated 07/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Parental guilt was etched on the face of college administrator Phillip Walsh, 27, as he dropped off his feverish baby son, Christopher, for the day at Sick Bay, a new medical baby-sitting service run by West Suburban Hospital Center in Oak Park, III. His wife, Nancy, was tied up with her job as an employee relations coordinator. Wincing every time Christopher wheezed or coughed, Walsh asked the nurses to make sure his 15-month-old son got his bottle of warmed-up formula as well as a frequent dose of tender loving care. "He likes to be held," Walsh said. Then, lingering a few moments before heading to his job at Loyola University, Walsh ran his fingers through Christopher's tousled blond hair and murmured, "Oh, buddy."

That evening Nancy stopped by to pick up Christopher. "He's very congested," the nurse told her. "Better get him checked." Christopher's pediatrician confirmed what the nurse had suspected: Christopher had pneumonia. "If he hadn't gone to Sick Bay, we might never have known in time," says Nancy gratefully.

For busy parents like the Walshes, Sick Bay and at least 50 similar hospital day care centers around the country are godsends. Before Sick Bay opened last November, a hospital survey revealed that two-parent families in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park lost three to ten days of work annually caring for sick kids. Now, for the modest price of $3 an hour, children up to 14 years old with relatively minor ailments can spend the day in a special section of the hospital under the supervision of pediatric nurses. "We want the children to feel comfortable," says Sick Bay's head nurse Kim Glaza, 29. "So we try at all costs not to treat them as if they were in the hospital."

Sick Bay is decorated in a nautical motif, with a big stuffed dog in a sailor's hat on guard in the admitting office. Space is limited to about 10 kids each day. But unlike some hospital day care centers that turn away kids with mumps, measles or pox out of fear of infecting other pediatric patients, Sick Bay takes nearly all comers. On a typical day recently, four kids arrived with chicken pox, including Justin Haynes, 6. Given a private room to prevent exposing other children, Justin cheerfully helped his mother, Judy Robinson, fill out forms detailing his medical history.

"Is he allergic to any foods?" a nurse asked.

"Only the ones I don't like," Justin said. Then, when his mother departed, he played with the remote channel-switcher on his TV set.

"It gets kind of humorous around here sometimes," says nurse Glaza. "The kids quickly discover the call light, and we do a lot of running back and forth to keep them occupied." Life was particularly frenzied for the nurses one week after an epidemic of chicken pox swept through a nearby toddler day care center. "We put four of the kids, including a set of twins, together in one room. But then everybody had to go to the bathroom at once," Glaza recalls. "One of the twins was pulling toilet paper off the roll while his sister threw herself on the toilet seat." When the riotous bathroom break was over, Glaza lined the kids up to be treated with skin lotion. Says Glaza: "One by one they crawled up on my lap and said, 'My "pots" are itching. My "pots" are itching.' "

Despite the apparent advantages for working parents, hospital day care centers have not been immune to criticism by some medical professionals. Dr. George Sterne of the American Academy of Pediatrics argues that mildly ill kids should go to their regular day care if they can't stay home. "There's no evidence that you are going to prevent the spread of a cold by sending home the child who has obvious symptoms," says Sterne. And for bedridden kids, Sterne believes there is no replacement for the comforting presence of family or friend. "Children who don't feel well need to be with a familiar person," he says. "To put them alone in a hospital is just inhumane."

While placidly ignoring the screams of a petulant toddler chanting, "I need more toys," Glaza admits that Sick Bay cannot duplicate the kind of care children would receive from Mom or Dad at home. "But most of the children adapt very well," she says. "They may cry a little bit when their parents leave. Then the rest of the day they are beautiful. Some three-year-olds say they'd like to stay here." After all, there are worse ways to spend the day than playing with a TV channel-switcher or nurse's call light.

—Written by David Grogan, reported by Beth Austin

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