My work at The Center for Health Design has always been very personal for me, guided by a mission to make the world a bit better for patients, family, and staff through the design of healthcare spaces that support the delivery of safe and high-quality care.

It’s now become personal in a different way, though. I’m writing this column in a neurology ICU unit in Scottsdale, Ariz., where my mother is being treated after suffering a severe stroke from which she is not likely to recover. I’ve been here for days, riding the emotional roller coaster that anyone who has been in an ICU with a loved one experiences: small victories balanced by devastating defeats. There’s nothing linear about the recovery path from a catastrophic event, especially when the patient is in her mid-80s.

I’ve spent hours in her private room, used a nearby consult space to call into a board of directors meeting, observed the nurses’ area when staff needed to tend to my mother privately, and met with visitors in the family waiting room where we tried to understand what was happening in order to make the best decision for someone we love.
Through all of this, I’m seeing firsthand how a well-designed healthcare facility can make a very difficult time a little easier for the family and how staff can leverage the space to provide outstanding care. Here’s what has stood out to me.

Quiet. One thing that keeps striking me about this space is how quiet it is for a 40-plus-bed ICU. At a time when anxiety levels are through the roof, there’s very little outside noise to further heighten that stress. The general feeling of calm created provides a sense of confidence that we’re in good hands.

Private ICU rooms. In my mother’s room, we’ve got four family members, her hospital bed, and all the equipment needed for her care. Various additional visitors filter in and out throughout the day along with a bevy of care team members cycling in and out 24/7. The room has a huge window that provides an abundance of natural light. Comfortable chairs don’t leave you feeling like you need chiropractic care after sitting for 12 hours. The design has made it possible for us to be with her and be seen by her without getting in the way of her care team. A large clock and patient information board has allowed my mom to keep track of how long she’s been here, which in an odd way has given her some sense of control in a situation where most of her autonomy is gone.

Distributed and centralized nurses’ stations. This ICU uses a racetrack design, with the rooms divided into four-pod units that function independently and diminish the sense that you’re in a large department. Most of my time has been spent watching and waiting, which has given me a lot of time to observe and talk with staff. Some nurses prefer their distributed workstations so they can keep a close eye on their patients, while others work from a centralized station where they can track patient vitals and connect with their peers. Most bounce back and forth effortlessly, depending on their needs and the acuity of their patients. By not forcing them into one work pattern, the caregivers find their own groove in a space that supports their work habits.

Decompression space. Having a variety of decompression spaces that allow family members to get away, compose, and even take care of work helps tremendously. It’s important to offer small spaces where individuals can be alone as well as larger spaces where multiple families can interact. In one of the family rooms here, I watched as an elderly woman, already here for five weeks, showed my almost 90-year-old dad how to turn one of the chairs into a bed so he could get some rest.

I’ve always known that what we do matters and I’m constantly telling the staff at The Center that the work they do every day, in some small way, eases the burden for people they will never meet, people in highly stressed situations who have lost some level of control of their lives. This week, I was one of those people.

Debra Levin is president and CEO of The Center for Health Design. She can be reached at

Editor’s note: Debra Levin’s mother, Ada Margolin Levin, died on Oct. 23 at the age of 86.