Kris Vanhaecht is an associate professor at KU Leuven University in Belgium, where he attained a PhD in Public Health in 2007, and now holds three research chairs, all with a focus of improving hospital-patient safety and wellbeing. Vanhaecht is also the founder of an initiative called Mangomoments.
In 2018, Vanhaecht wrote an article that was published in The Lancet Oncology titled ‘In search of Mangomoments’. The title drew inspiration from a trivial event that took place in a Belgian hospital between an ICU patient, called Viviane, and a journalist. After waking up from a coma in the intensive care unit, Viviane described how hard it was lying in bed all the time, what the grey ceiling looked like, how she heard the voices of deceased family members, and why she thought about euthanasia (Vanhaecht, K., 2018). Touched by Viviane’s story, the journalist asked her if there was anything they could do to make her happy. Viviane replied that she would like a mango; that she all she wanted was to taste one again. The journalist returned a couple of days later with a mango and presented it to Viviane. This simple act moved Viviane to tears. When Vanhaecht caught wind of the story, he was warmed but also left feeling confused, for how was it possible that none of the health workers at the hospital had asked Viviane the basic question of: what can we do to make you happy?
Hospitals can be lonely places, and loneliness, researchers are discovering, is not conducive to good health. Vivek Murthy is an American physician who, in 2014, was appointed by Barack Obama as the 19th Surgeon General of the United States. On an episode of the Armchair Expert podcast, aired on the 18th of June, 2020, Murthy spoke about the health implications of loneliness. He cited recent research out of Brigham Young University, which found that the impact of loneliness on an individual’s lifespan is greater than the impact of obesity and sedentary living. Shockingly, the research also showed that the reduction in lifespan caused by loneliness is similar to that of smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. On the subject of health and in particular: the framework through which health professionals view health, Murthy says: ‘something has clearly been missing’. Our lens has been too narrow. Physicians need to start taking their patients’ mental health seriously.
Kris Vanhaecht has since teamed up with an organisation called Kom Op Tegen Kanker (‘Stand Up To Cancer’) and together they’ve been involved in over 200 Mangomoments in Belgium hospitals. These acts of kindness are not the same as events like ‘make a wish’ and they do not involve celebrities visiting children with terminal illnesses. Vanhaecht’s Mangomoments happen during ‘normal care activities’. They are everyday acts of kindness performed by family members and healthcare professionals that aim to ease the suffering and counter the banality of hospital life. People need to get essential daily nutrients not only from food, but also from a laugh, an embrace, or even smaller moments of connection (Frederickson, B., 2013). Hospitals are often the end-of-the-road; the last stop in a patient’s journey of regressing ailments. Considering the newfound knowledge of poor mental health effects on physical wellbeing, initiatives that function in hospitals like Mangomoments, could not be more essential.