Great Pumpkin, costumes, more: Bringing Halloween to the hospital for Mayo’s youngest patients

Tammy Lepisto, Renee Riefer and Lisa Kronebusch pose with The Great Pumpkin.

From a giant pumpkin to costumes for infants in the neonatal intensive care unit, Mayo Clinic's Child Life Program brought Halloween to the hospital for pediatric patients and their families.

'Twas the week before Halloween and all through the hospital, many people were sleeping as a large round-ish object made its way through the halls of Saint Marys Campus.

When dawn broke on Oct. 23, those looking out on the Mary Brigh Courtyard saw something magical.

The Great Pumpkin had arrived.

Paul Bongers with the giant pumpkin that he grew and donated to Mayo Clinic Children's Center.

"Giant pumpkins make everybody smile," says Paul Bongers. "And who needs a smile more than kids and their families in a hospital?"

That's a question Paul — who donated the giant pumpkin to Mayo Clinic Children's Center — can answer himself. His son spent nearly two years receiving care at Mayo Clinic.

"Our care team in pediatric oncology have been the most wonderful, caring group of people," Paul says. "And Child Life was instrumental in helping Jacob navigate the emotional turmoil cancer treatment brings. They also were great at including my other children in activities when they were able to visit, helping us stay connected as a family."

Even with the care and support they received from staff, the Bongers still had many hard days inside the hospital.

"When Jacob was an inpatient, it was difficult to keep our spirits up," Paul says. "I'm fortunate enough to be able to give back something unique with the giant pumpkin. Hopefully seeing it brings joy to the people who need it most."

Paul isn't alone in wanting to bring holiday happiness to Mayo Clinic's youngest patients. From costumes and spooky stories to sweet treats, Mayo Clinic staff are helping conjure Halloween magic.

A great teaching tool

The Great Pumpkin provided a fun teaching tool for Michael Wridt, a full-time teacher at Mayo Clinic Children's Center. His role is to provide an engaging and fun learning environment that spawns continued academic and social-emotional growth for pediatric patients while they are hospitalized. 

Visiting The Great Pumpkin in the Mary Brigh Courtyard.

An oversized pumpkin only helped his cause. He used it to teach kids about what it takes to grow such a super squash and how to calculate its approximate weight and circumference. Kids could send their estimates to Child Life staff and be rewarded with a prize. (Winning numbers for those keeping score: 1,170 pounds with a 164-inch "waist." And it's not even the biggest pumpkin Paul grew this year. "I had two others weighing 1,758 pounds and 2,024 pounds," he says. "Due to the logistics of navigating the pumpkin through the building, the smallest pumpkin was chosen for display. Maybe next year we can figure out a way to bring a bigger one!")

The pumpkin also provided a fun destination for patients.

"I took kids who were able to leave their rooms out to see the pumpkin," Wridt says. "One kiddo hadn't been outside in about six weeks. It was great to get the kids outside and to show them something unusual. The change of pace and normalization of the fall experience was very welcomed."

Wridt also hosted spooky story time, exploring creepy spaces on the Saint Marys campus, including a dark storage room and a room housing unused beds and other hospital equipment. He broadcast his explorations on the Pediatric Kids' Channel and read scary(ish) stories in each space.

"These types of experiences are even more special because of the condition that these kids are in," Wridt says. "We try hard to make things fun for the kids, and any learning that can come from it is a bonus."

Costumes aren't just for kids

The Child Life team also used the seasonal cheer for a bit of joyful team building. They asked staff to submit group and pet photos for their annual costume contest, and they worked together to dress their best.

"Get your co-workers or pets together to take a picture for our annual costume contest," read the message. Staff in pediatrics — and their pets — understood the assignment, fully committing to costumes representing Barbie, Minions and more.

Child Life received submissions from a dozen teams and nearly as many pet parents, all vying for the title of Best Dressed Up. Then they opened the voting to patients, family members and staff. See the submissions and cast your votes here before noon CDT on Tuesday, Oct. 31.

Check out the submissions in this slide show:

Big people and pets weren't the only costumed cuties this year. Child Life staff posted a request on Facebook for costumes for NICU patients, and in response, they received hundreds of donations of crocheted and knitted costumes.

"The cuteness is OUT OF CONTROL," Val Stuve, a certified child life specialist, reports.

View a slideshow of some of the submissions below:

Bigger kids also have had costumes available to them free of charge, thanks to donations from staff and the Rochester community.

And then there's trick-or-treating

Staff also answered the call to provide trick-or-treating experiences for patients.

Groups signed up to decorate tables and hand out treats in Mary Brigh atriums on Halloween. Many others provided donations, including candy, stickers and small toys. These efforts ensure that all patients — including those unable to leave their rooms — receive something festive to mark the occasion.

"We are so grateful to the countless Mayo Clinic staff members that donate to our Halloween festivities," Stuve says. "Because of our donors, we can bring Halloween fun to pediatric patients in the Mayo Clinic Children's Center as well as in our outpatient pediatric areas. Our goal is to bring some normalization and fun to patients and their families. Our staff help us achieve that goal."