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The incredible benefits of aquariums in hospitals

Noting the beneficial effect of fish on patients, their relatives and caregivers, a growing number of medical establishments are equipped with more or less large aquariums.

“The life of the aquarium punctuates the lives of patients like a diary, they find themselves around it as one gathers around a fireplace”, says Professor Maurice Mimoun, head of the department of plastic surgery and severe burns at the hospital. Saint-Louis hospital in Paris. Isolated patients come out of their rooms to observe the changes in the aquarium, they come into contact with other patients, with visiting families. The aquarium becomes a meeting place, a place to walk, to observe a biotope.

“The patients identify the fish, observe those who are weaker, are enthusiastic about their reproduction but also witness the death of some of them”, underlines Professor Mimoun. “The aquarium offers the possibility of taking the time to observe the life of the fish with a calming effect brought by the water itself.”

Less high blood pressure, more appetite

There are few studies on this type of experience, because the effects are difficult to quantify. However, several teams have succeeded in measuring the effects of an aquarium on blood pressure: in 20 minutes of observation, it drops significantly, with a residual effect for several hours. An American study demonstrated that the presence of an aquarium in a geriatric unit increased the food intake of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Some departments have observed a reduction in bedsores for patients who have been bedridden for long periods of time because the aquarium encourages them to get up more often. At the Robert Debré hospital in Paris, the aquarium is used in child psychiatry to help patients with eating disorders, in particular by letting them feed the fish.

Professor Raphaël Vialle, head of the pediatric orthopedic and reconstructive surgery department at the Armand Trousseau hospital in Paris, inaugurated a 1,200-litre tropical seawater aquarium in his department in 2012. He observed that the children who looked at the aquarium tolerate slightly painful gestures much better, with an effect that lasts for about ten minutes. “This confirms the numerous studies which indicate that diversionary techniques are particularly effective in combating pain in children,” he specifies.

A life-saving but restrictive device

He wanted to measure this effect by a study carried out on 70 adults using a device capable of delivering weak painful stimulation. The pain perception threshold was raised after only 5 minutes of observation of the aquarium with an effect that capitalized in 30 minutes to establish a kind of temporary anesthesia. “This is the first time that we have shown a direct effect on pain,” he enthuses.

Should an aquarium be installed in all hospital departments? “Perhaps at least a simple bowl with goldfish, but probably not a tropical aquarium which requires a minimum of expertise and a significant investment, financially but also in time”, indicates Professor Vialle, who recalls that his passion for aquariums was the main driving force behind the project. We had to find the 11,000 euros needed at the start and the service depends on donations for the annual 2,000 euros needed for maintenance.

The installation of an aquarium in his department also required the involvement of the entire department as well as the hospital technicians who carried out the installation in their spare time. Professor Vialle himself performs the 3 essential cleanings each week, relayed by his colleagues when he is absent.

This positive collective momentum is essential for the success of such a project. “Patients ask many questions to the staff, who must therefore adhere to the project in order to be able to answer them without impatience,” recalls Professor Mimoun. “Such a project remains dependent on the passion of one or more people, if only to maintain the aquarium: nothing is sadder than an aquarium that dies for lack of care”.

The beneficial effects extend to patients’ families and ward staff. “Parents sometimes wait hours for their child to come out of the operating room and the presence of the aquarium lessens their impatience,” says Professor Vialle. “The waiting room was a real pressure cooker, with incessant requests from families on the staff”. From now on, the staff is no longer subjected to the frustration of the families who rather start the conversation on the habits of the fish than on the length of their wait.

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