• Article
  • October 4, 2017

70,000 Football Fans Wave at Children's Hospital Patients

A new tradition and a wave of support sweeps over Iowa Children's Hospital and uplifts patients and families. 

Iowa football fans wave to patients at the University of Iowa Stead Family Children's Hospital.
Iowa football fans wave to patients at the University of Iowa Stead Family Children's Hospital. Photo by USA Today Sports Images/Jeffrey Becker.

For Gwen Senio, her favorite memory of the day was seeing the hospital looking so…un-hospital-like. "Looking around the room, you could tell we were having a great party," says Senio, B.A., CCLS, manager of the Child Life program at the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital. "There was popcorn and frosting and tassels from pom-poms all over the floor. The windows were smudged with little handprints from the children—for me, that was a highlight. This is a children's hospital, and we've got something special going on here."

The scene Senio describes is not a typical day at UI Stead Family Children's Hospital, but instead is what is becoming one of the most heartwarming traditions in all of sports. At the end of the first quarter of each University of Iowa home football game, the entire stadium—more than 70,000 players, coaches and fans—turns and waves to the children at the adjacent hospital.

New building sparks an idea

It all became possible with the completion of the hospital's new building in February 2017. The $360 million structure is Iowa City's tallest building—the 12-story hospital towers over the football stadium located across the street. The new hospital includes a room called the Press Box, which is situated on the hospital's top floor, offering patients and families a bird's-eye view of the football stadium.

This spring, an Iowa football fan suggested the gesture to show support to the patients and families at the hospital, and the idea spread. By the time Iowa's first home game of the season rolled around in early September, the wave idea had washed over the fan base, and a tradition was born.

Priceless feelings

The wave has occurred at three games so far, and it has received significant media attention, touching football fans from around the country. But the people most affected by the gesture are those inside the Press Box. "It was emotional," says Renee Plumb, Child Life program assistant at UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital. "To see the excitement of the families that were in the Press Box and to be able to see the children and their families forget about being in the hospital for that amount of time is priceless."

Ashley Meyers, Child Life program assistant, says she could feel the energy in the room shift. "When that moment happened—when everyone in the stadium turned and waved—it was a lot quieter, and people were just overtaken with the moment," she says.

Motivating experience

The warm feeling in the Press Box lingers long after the wave ends. Senio says patients' excitement and anticipation builds throughout the days leading up to a football game. "Some of these kids might not be feeling well on game day, but yet they are motivated to be at the window and wave back," Senio says.

She says one ICU patient was able to take part when his family and nursing staff brought him to the Press Box in a wagon and positioned him at the window. "For him to be a part of that excitement lifted his mood and helped him forget about any pain and discomfort that he might have been having that day," Senio says.

Fan support helps patients

On the field below IU Stead Family Children's Hospital, football fans clap their hands, stomp their feet and yell—anything they can do to help the home team overcome its opponent. But inside the hospital, the challenges are more daunting and the stakes are higher. Of course, the "opponents" confronting hospital patients can't be intimidated by a crowd, but the support helps push the children toward victory.

"It's one of those experiences that instills hope in the kids," Senio says. "It's hard to measure the impact of an experience like that, but it's a very real thing. It contributes not only to how they feel at that time but also carries over to when they get back to their rooms, and they have something to think about other than their illness or their health care."

The next wave: this weekend

The next wave will take place Saturday, when Iowa hosts Illinois at 11 a.m. Central Time. See video highlights from the first wave.

Video credit: University of Iowa Stead Family Children's Hospital

Send questions or comments to magazine@childrenshospitals.org.