In the second-floor lobby of the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, 19-year-old Brianna Boyd makes her way past the suspended yellow pufferfish display, head down and eyes cast on the iPhone in her hand. While she may appear to be another smartphone-absorbed teenager, she is actually focused on a game that helped her recover from surgery just a week prior.
“Pokemon Go” is a free, augmented-reality mobile app that launched in the U.S. in early July and has since swept the nation by storm. Based off the late 1990s and 2000s franchise, it allows users of all ages to capture fictional characters with a flick of the finger and become real-life “masters” of the game. Patients at the Children’s Center are getting in on the action.
“I had just had surgery and needed to get out of bed, but I didn’t want to,” says Brianna, who has regularly been in and out of the hospital with a chronic condition since she was 1 month old. She downloaded the app, created a look-alike avatar and took her first slow, painful post-surgery steps as she searched for Pokémon. With each step, her avatar simultaneously moved in the game’s map using GPS. Within minutes, she captured her first one and didn’t stop there. “I wanted to get up as much as I could to find as many Pokémon as I could!”
Employees quickly realized that patients who were playing couldn’t always get out of their rooms to capture Pokémon that were scattered throughout the hospital. They began leaving “lures,” or tricks that attract the characters to a certain spot, in easily accessible areas, like outside patients’ doors or at the entrance of a unit.
Using video and mobile games to benefit patients is nothing new for nurses, child life specialists and other pediatric caregivers. “It helps them not think about what’s happening medically, and it’s an opportunity for interaction outside of hospital activities, medical needs and the plan of care,” says Nancy Stanley, a nurse manager at the Children’s Center and a 26-year Johns Hopkins veteran. “Playing games like their friends do is a normal activity, plus it’s a great coping mechanism, which is vital to the healing process.”
Children’s Center librarian Phoebe Bacon agrees that games like “Pokemon Go” can make a world of difference to the healing process. “Getting kids out of bed is part of the ‘getting better’ program,” she says. “This is key for mobility, particularly for teens, who are one of the hardest age groups to get out of bed.”
At a recent meeting of the Children’s Center Teen and Children’s Advisory Council, of which Brianna is a part, the game was a hot topic. “Even though we’re stuck in the hospital, we still feel connected to the outside world while getting the rest and care we need,” she says.
Johns Hopkins Corporate Security says it won’t allow the fun to distract from its mission to keep patients, visitors and employees safe. Timothy Neenan, an internal security officer and friendly face in the hospital’s Billings Administration Building, has seen a spike in the number of people trying to come inside. He reassures patients and employees that “if people don’t have any business here aside from just walking around, they can’t make it past this point,” gesturing to the security desk just a few feet inside the Broadway entrance.