From its name to a play area filled with children's books, games and other toys, Route 1's KinderMender, looks more like a day-care center instead of a pediatric medical facility.
KinderMender's play area has a white picket fence, flat-screen television on the wall and a favorite children's television character, Percy the Small Engine, chugging along overhead on railroad tracks that wrap around the ceiling. The rectangle-shaped reception desk is surrounded by lots of open space, allowing the center's young patients to run around freely, without bumping into anything.
At the facility's ribbon-cutting Saturday, Dr. Keyvan Rafei, Kinder Mender's owner and medical director, said he intentionally designed the center to look like a child's playroom.
"I wanted to take the fear out of a doctor's visit, so the whole idea was to make it fun," said Rafei, former head of the University of Maryland Hospital for Children's pediatric emergency medicine and pediatric asthma program. "Yes, we give shots and things like that, but a doctor's office shouldn't be scary, but fun."
At the 4,000-square-foot center, two brightly painted hallways lead to nine exam rooms, with small, colorful awnings over each room's door. One hallway has three exam rooms for preventive treatments only, while the second hallway has six exam rooms for sick patients. Each room has games mounted on the walls, televisions capable of running video games, animal wall murals and exam tables that are part table and part truck.
"Kids look at it as getting on top of the truck for the exam and when it's over, they get in the truck on the bottom to play," Rafei said. "We wipe everything down after each patient visit, and every day we steam clean all the rooms and furniture to disinfect them."
There are three full-time physicians, three full-time nurse practitioners and 19 other full and part-time employees at KinderMender in Laurel. Several are fluent in Spanish. The center has its own diagnostic lab and provides preventive and acute care services, such as physicals, immunizations and X-rays. Parents can bring their children in seven days a week, with or without an appointment.
That flexibility is what attracted Daniela Puiu, a mother of two, to Saturday's grand opening.
"The flexible hours are great because some clinics don't take patients after 4 p.m. and some won't do a same-day appointment," Puiu said.
KinderMender nurse practitioner Holly DeLuca said the center offers a big savings since they don't charge for certain medications.
"A lot of our patients need urgent care for ear infections, upper respiratory problems, lacerations and things like that, so we keep antibiotics in stock, prescription gels, topical creams and ointments, over the counter medications and things that we would recommend for treatment," DeLuca said. "This way, a parent can leave us without having to go to the drug store to fill a prescription and get their sick child home quickly."
Rafei opened his first KinderMender in Columbia on Dobbin Road two years ago, and that center sees more than 75 patients a day. Liza Fenton said she's taken her 3-year-old son there for asthma attacks and when he bumped his head and needed stitches.
"We've been there five times and the wait was never long and I was always glad to be sent home with (free) medicine because after emergency care, you hate to wait until the next day to get a prescription filled," said Fenton, who lives in New Carrollton and is happy for the closer location in Laurel. "My son loves getting a prize at the end out of the treasure chest behind the counter. Whenever I tell him it's time to go to the doctor (at KinderMender), he says, 'Let's go to treasure chest.' "
City officials tour facility
Mayor Craig Moe was at the opening and, after taking a tour of the center, said he was impressed with the center.
"It's outstanding and provides all the services people need for emergency care and wellness," Moe said. "Health care is a big issue and whenever we can have something like this in the community, it's great for the city."
City Council President Fred Smalls, who also toured the facility, agreed and said it will provide a lot of convenience for patients.
"They have everything here and there are not a lot of forms to fill out or a long wait from the door to seeing a doctor," Smalls said. "I mean, what's worse than sitting for a long time in a waiting room with a sick child? I can't wait to bring my grandchildren here."
City Council member Valerie Nicholas was also on hand and praised the center's layout and concept.
"It's wonderful and I wish I could be a patient here," Nicholas said.
And she can. In addition to providing care for newborns to 23-year-old patients, Rafei said they treat people up to 50 years old for common medical problems.
"I don't treat people that age with chest pains, but for things like the flu, strep throat or an ear infection," he said.
Rafei said he has no regrets about leaving such a large health-care center as the University of Maryland children's hospital to open the much smaller KinderMender practice. He said he can make decisions more quickly and pointed out that he would never have been able to give medications away free in a large organization. He's also making his conference room available to nonprofit health and community service groups for meetings.
As for why he chose to expand to Laurel, Rafei said it was because of the many families here with young children and the Route 1 location.
"Laurel has the volume I need to survive and we're very visible on Route 1 and easy to find. Plus, there was no model like this in Laurel," he said. "Sure, emergency rooms are great to have all of your child's needs taken care of without an appointment, but they are…not child friendly. Children come to KinderMender and don't want to leave."