‘I could be myself, not a patient’: the Norwegian hospital offering respite in a woodland cabin
It’s a cold snowy winter’s day in , but the Skogen Tangeraas family sitting around a bonfire in some woodland don’t seem to care. They’re too busy drinking hot chocolate and cooking sausages. Their dog is splashing around in the stream. The three daughters – aged 7, 10 and 12 – alternate between chopping wood, archery and popping into a nearby cabin to practise gyotaku, a traditional Japanese method of printing fish.
It sounds like a family holiday in the countryside but the cabin, woodland and stream are located in the grounds of Oslo University hospital. The middle daughter, Albertine, is in remission for childhood cancer, which has taken a toll on her and the whole family. With them is Maren Østvold Lindheim, a paediatric psychologist who works at the hospital helping children prepare for gruelling treatment for life-threatening conditions.
“Any stay at a hospital is challenging. are sometimes very scared of what they’re going to go through. Many hate the idea of pain,” says Lindheim. She adds that this can impact on their treatment; sometimes they’ll refuse it or have to be restrained to receive it, which is traumatic for everyone involved.
Being stuck in hospital is so far removed from normality and daily family life, she says, and this leads to a loss of control which has an emotional and physical impact. For the past seven years, she has seen the positive effect of nature in her therapeutic work.
Before, when she tried to engage patients in hospital she found it very difficult. They wouldn’t open up and were generally fed up of a life consisting of giving blood samples and answering clinical questions. Taking her patients for a walk outside, away from the stark setting of the hospital, worked wonders. “My patients had been inside for such a long time and no one had asked if they wanted to go out,” she says. “When I took them and sat down on the grass by the stream, they started to talk.” From there, Lindheim was able to build relationships with patients, discuss any possible fears and prepare them for hospital treatment.
As time progressed, she thought it would be great to have a place on site that was just far away enough from the hospital to forget all about it, but close enough to get emergency clinical help. She approached the Friluftssykehuset foundation – a charitable organisation started by Håvard Hernes, whose daughter, Linea, was treated at Oslo University hospital for a rare and aggressive type of cancer. Hernes then approached Snøhetta, an architecture firm, which was taken with his personal story and enthusiasm.
“The idea was so deeply felt because of his daughter. It was something that really hit us because of what architecture could do,” says Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, founder of Snøhetta. He believes architecture’s main purpose is to better lives and that if hospitals were designed with nature and design in mind, patients might be able to recover faster. In close consultation with the medical team at the hospital, the firm went about designing a cabin.
The finished product stands in stark contrast to the hospital building. It’s made of wood and is accessible for wheelchair users and hospital beds. It consists of a main room, a smaller room for conversation and treatment, and a bathroom. Light pours in through various large windows which face away from the hospital and can be opened. Each cabin costs around £500,000 to make and install. Funding came from the hospital, the government and the Friluftssykehuset foundation.
The cabin officially opened in the summer. It’s still early days and the team at the hospital plan to research its impact on patients. It serves another purpose, too – to be a place to escape for any patient in the hospital. Currently, reservations are managed through a booking system.
Solveig Sigmond Ræstad, who works in the film industry, was the first person to use it. A year ago, she had just had a heart transplant and was fed up of hospitals.
The 43-year-old had been in and out of hospital for over a year after she suffered a heart attack. When she was admitted to hospital for the first time, a routine procedure went catastrophically wrong. Miraculously, she survived but was fitted with a mechanical pump to help her heart pump blood, while she waited over a year for a new heart.
“I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t do anything [to start with],” she remembers. “I was in intensive care with a lot of people around me all the time. It was crazy shit with oxygen masks, doctors crowding round my bed, the full shebang.” Ræstad spent the next 14 months in and out of Oslo University hospital. When her young children came to visit, they felt uncomfortable in a clinical environment and she had no privacy; her door was always open.
“I really wish I had [the cabin] before [my transplant operation],” she says. “It’s beautiful. It’s secluded. I could go there and be myself instead of a patient. You don’t have everyone watching you, coming in and out. Being in a hospital is a toll on your boundaries. They wipe your ass. It’s nice to have some freedom from that.”
• Sarah Johnson’s visit to Norway was supported by the Norwegian embassy in London, which had no say in the content of this article.