Jill Pearsall has a pretty good handle on the complexity of hospital systems. She’s the senior vice president of facilities planning and development at Texas Children’s Hospital, the largest system in the country serving pediatric and women’s health. The hospital is affiliated with Baylor College of Medicine, making it an academic teaching institution.
Texas Children’s, with its 897-bed inpatient care and outpatient system, is based in Houston; it’s now establishing its range of care in Austin, 180 miles away. Its large scale of operations means that one might expect its facilities management to be fairly corporate.
But visit one of the buildings, in a hallway where anxious parents and ailing children pass daily, and you can see something that makes it clear Pearsall hasn’t lost touch with the mission of the organization.
It’s dancing cows. Technically, they are sculptures of cows (named Fred and Ginger) in rhinestone outfits, raised up on hind legs, cutting a rug and larger than life.
Those cows were originally part of citywide fundraiser for the hospital, called CowParade, in 2001. Amid the vast array of best-in-class medicine and technologies is the kind of whimsy that patients and visitors love.
Children with illnesses or injuries need something to make them smile, and the smart designers who work under Pearsall figured out a way to make that happen.
Pearsall, who trained as an architect, is responsible for much more than design. But she particularly delights in ribbon cuttings—that crowning moment when modern healthcare design principles come together to create a place for healing. In the last decade or so that has included bringing in more natural light for the benefit of patients and healthcare providers.
It also includes a programmed dimming of lights that helps calm patients so clinicians can do their work, and the use of acoustic materials in floors, ceilings, and walls to achieve a similar effect.
She speaks of the collaborative, “internally owned” nature of the culture at Texas Children’s, which makes it possible for her team to do what they do. It pervades the entire organization. Pearsall notes that the physicians go out of their way to be more engaging and less scary to the young patients, which contributes to this atmosphere.
But she also credits the CEO, who’s been with the hospital for more than three decades, for making this possible. Pearsall herself has worked there for two decades and helped it evolve—though she was impressed with the work environment from the very beginning.
“When I first started working here I was surprised by the culture,” she says. “Everyone wants to be involved, wants it to succeed.”
This culture plays out in a very specific and important way for Pearsall, who is responsible for facilities development. “The biggest mistake we could make would be to write up a big, long-range master plan and put a big bow on it,” she says. There are too many moving parts, too many variables, for anything to be perfectly predicted that far out.
The construction of huge facilities might take several years from conception through approvals, permitting, and construction. But there is, by nature, a lot of back-and-forth in that conceptual stage.
“In 2016 we started a facilities master planning group,” she says. It is made up of executives from finance, facilities, nursing, and other clinical specialties, who gather on a regular basis to discuss “everything from minutiae to strategy,” she says, describing it as a free-form exchange of ideas, likely costs, and priorities. “We have this uber-crazy spreadsheet with every great idea on it,” she notes, which remains fluid in response to all the dynamics a big healthcare system faces.
When pressed on the overall mission of facilities, Pearsall points out that the buildings have to exist before you can treat patients and the buildings need to respond to the care being provided. It’s clear she finds joy in not only creating those places for patients, employees, and visitors, but also ensuring that they’re safe and enable mental as well as physical health.
The biggest projects underway or nearing completion are the 52-bed, 5-story pediatric and women’s facility in North Austin, and an office building conversion to a women’s services outpatient facility in Houston, adjacent to the Texas Children’s Texas Medical Center campus.
The latter was built with white, precast concrete, not the “sunset red” granite on the exterior of their other buildings. To ensure that the building is identifiable as Texas Children’s, a clever solution was devised to apply a complementary paint shade to the concrete.
Pearsall manages to do more than oversee huge buildings full of twenty-first-century technologies to improve the health of children in Texas. She also volunteers with a program for fifth graders, showing them the diversity of careers they might one day follow into healthcare—including architecture and building.
One imagines that anything involving bejeweled dancing cow sculptures would show them how serious work can involve some fun as well.