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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, June 19, 2024

History on the Hill: Floating Hospital for Children

Not only was the Floating Hospital for Children much different in the 1800s, the ambulances -- one of which is pictured above -- looked very different as well.

Boston has long been known for its top-of-the-line medical care, and the city boasts some of the best hospitals in the nation. Contributing to this culture of advanced medical treatment is the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center. According to Dan Bird, the director of volunteers at Tufts Medical Center, the Floating Hospital was one of the region’s first pediatric hospitals. Now at several locations in the Boston area, the Floating Hospital has a unique history which gave it its name.

According to its website, the Floating Hospital began offering day cruises in 1894 featuring medical services for children, advice for their mothers and fresh sea breezes that were believed to be a beneficial form of treatment. At a time when immigrant populations were growing and living conditions were poor, there were no medical services offered for children, making the Floating Hospital a valuable resource for the city, Bird said.

When the ship was destroyed in a fire in 1927, the Floating Hospital for Children expanded its previously existing land branch, according to the website.

According to Bird, since fresh air had been invalidated as a cure for most diseases by the discovery of more advanced forms of medicine, the decision was made to eliminate the “floating” aspect of the Floating Hospital.In 1965 the hospital officially merged with Tufts Medical Center and in 1982 the Floating Hospital moved into Tufts Medical Center facilities.

To commemorate this history on the hospital's 120th anniversary, “The Boston Floating Hospital: How a Boston Harbor Barge Changed the Course of Pediatric Medicine" written by Lucie Prinze, was published this fall. It details this history of the hospital, and all proceeds from the book will be donated to its services and programs, according to the website.

The hospital has long been involved with cutting-edge research in many fields, from the development of the powdered baby formula now known as Similac,to the treatment of pneumonia in children with Complex Chronic Conditions, according to the hospital's website.

“When an illness came up such as polio, we were on the forefront of it. We are responsive to whatever is currently in greatest need ... What’s needed now is where we want to be,” Bird said.

Before the Floating Hospital for Children, little medical care was offered specifically for children in the Boston area, Bird explained.

“There were no pediatricians prior to the Floating Hospital for Children,” he said.

According to Bird, another important advancement made by the Floating Hospital was “Child Life Services," a program that allows children to participate in play activities. The program also offers tutoring and support group services, as well as opportunities for parents to visit overnight, according to the website.

“[It] started as a kindergarten on the boat but now is a way in which we relate to the child," he said. "We have kindergarten and play activities ... The now universal idea of catering to the needs of the children all started on the boat."

Both its rich history and its modern ideals set the Floating Hospital apart from other pediatric hospitals in the nation, according to Bird.

“[It is] not only pride, it’s also the fact that [they] have not lost the core, the roots of who [they] were," he said.

The ideals of the hospital blend practicality and personalized care, striking a balance that has made them “one of the premier pediatric hospitals in the nation,” Bird added.

The nother defining characteristic of The Floating Hospital has always been defined by its focus on family, Bird said. From the hospital’s very beginning, mothers were required to stay involved with their children’s treatment by accompanying them out onto the boat.

"[The hospital noticed] strong benefits [of] having the family involved in the care of the child,” Bird said.

This ideal is still a big concern in the treatment of patients at the Floating Hospital today.

According to Bird, another main focus of the Floating Hospital for Children is the concept of treating the "whole child,” a perspective that sets the hospital apart and allows for more personalized and complete care for each patient. Rather than targeting the illness specifically, patients receive care throughout which they are viewed as individuals as having a family and a life beyond their condition.

“The ‘whole child’ is not just a public relations expression, it’s really a genuine way in which we treat the patients,” he said.

The hospital has also been guided by a strong sense of community, Bird added.

“We’re what you might call a community hospital,” he said. “We feel as though we are a part of the community that we serve, and the community responds ... the Floating Hospital is their hospital.”

Elizabeth McGorty, a graduate student assistant to the office of Digital Collections and Archives in Tisch Library, processed the archives for the Floating Hospital. She was also in charge of assembling an exhibit in Tisch Library this fall celebrating the its 120th Anniversary.

"[The NEMC is an] overseer organization for … the Boston Floating Hospital, the Boston Dispensary [and] what became the Pratt Clinic,” she said.

McGorty went through the artifacts and documents pertaining to the Floating Hospital in order to create the exhibit.

“I wanted to make sure [the pieces] fit into the narrative of the evolution of the Floating Hospital,” she said. “My idea for the exhibit was to show a three-tiered narrative: I wanted to show the Boston Floating Hospital as it was as a ship, floating on Boston Harbor, I wanted to show the land-based facility in Chinatown, and I wanted to show the hospital’s relationship with Tufts University.”

According to McGorty, Tufts students have long been involved with the Floating Hospital; Tufts Medical students have been on board the ship learning and working since its inception.

Working together with a team that involves the family in the care of the child, finding new ways to help the community and teaching others in order to expand its work are important ideals the hospital promotes, Bird said. The legacy of the hospital and a strong sense of community influence how the hospital operates today.

"Because of how we got started and how we progressed ... the pride that we have in what we are today is something that carries us forward,” Bird said.