Something fishy is going on in the children's hospital

October 20, 2023
A young woman with long dark hair wearing a tank top sits on a hospital bed with a girl who has shoulder length reddish hair and is looking at a screen.
Mary-Margaret Teal's mouth opens in surprise as she and medical student Kaila Martin take a virtual tour of the South Carolina Aquarium. Photos by Sarah Pack

An adorable 8-year-old girl lying in a bed in the MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital is happy to see medical student Kaila Martin come to visit – and things get even better when she finds out what they’ll do together.

Martin has a screen that will connect Mary-Margaret Teal with a place she’s never been but is about to get a personal tour of: the South Carolina Aquarium.

“You can turn to the right and left and look up,” Martin tells Mary-Margaret, explaining how the hand-held device works. “You can drive it around the aquarium, and our friend here is going to show you anything you want to see.”

The device controls a robot at the aquarium that moves on Mary-Margaret’s command. An aquarium tour guide is on hand to help. For a half-hour, the girl from Chesterfield, South Carolina, forgets about the liver trouble that brought her to the hospital and focuses instead on exploring the waterfront landmark that’s home to not only fish but also jellies, sharks, eels, turtles and more.

The tour guide has a question for Mary-Margaret. “Do you want to see a shark – or sea turtles?”

That’s an easy one for the young patient. “Turtles!”

While Mary-Margaret rightfully takes center stage in this visit, a special program for medical students at the Medical University of South Carolina helps make it possible. Martin is part of the school’s Pediatric Interest Group. It’s a way for future doctors to interact with kids and learn about issues affecting them.

Betsy McMillan, manager of the hospital’s Child Life Program, welcomes their help. “As medical students become immersed in their clinical education and experiences, the psychosocial side of health care is often overlooked or forgotten,” she said.

View from side of girl who is holding an iPad. The screen shows a woman at the South Carolina Aquarium. 
Mary-Margaret can control what she sees in the aquarium as a tour guide shows her around.

“For students with a special interest in pediatrics, the opportunity to spend time with patients and engage in positive, normal play is valuable. The perspective of child first, patient second demonstrates how even in the most challenging of situations, children want and need to play and are very capable of learning.”

The Pediatric Interest Group’s volunteer coordinator, Taylor Woollen, says the organization has more than 200 members. Most, like her, have found their callings. 

“I've always been really interested in working with kids. When I was in high school, I volunteered, tutoring kids at a local elementary school and did that a little bit in college, too. I've just always really liked working with kids. In medicine, I feel like kids want to get better and their parents really care about their health. And kids are just so much fun to work with.”

Woollen said her group not only plays with hospitalized kids but also offers training to its members in things like suturing and vaccinations. And the medical students learn how to advocate for children’s needs with the guidance of the American Academy of Pediatrics. 

Woollen appreciates that aspect. “I think there's a push right now for medical students to be more aware of how much input we can have and things that we can do involving advocacy.”

But for now, Martin and Mary-Margaret are focused on fun. “She’s already an expert. Look at her,” Martin says as the girl moves the screen with ease to check out the aquarium’s wonders. 

Mary-Margaret marvels at a sea turtle. “Look at her!” she says. “Are there any sharks?”

There are, and thanks to the Pediatric Interest Group and the Aquarium, she’s about to meet one of the sharp-finned, predatory fish. It won’t bite, but it will distract her. And that’s exactly what the future doctor with her would have ordered.

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