No high schooler wants to spend nearly two months of senior year stuck in a hospital. But in 2019, that’s just what happened to Emily Hontz during her last semester at West Chester East High School.
Instead of getting to do all the fun stuff she had planned with family and friends — she had tickets for “Mean Girls” on Broadway — she underwent lengthy treatment at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where doctors worked to control her Crohn’s disease. The chronic inflammatory bowel condition had left her debilitated, weak, and unable to attend school.
But an unexpected thing happened as Emily slowly walked the halls at CHOP. She began feeling the stirrings of a future career, inspired by the hospital’s sensitive design.
The layout of the floor seemed just perfect for the laps she needed to do to stay active. The atrium added light, cheer, and interest. The colors added a touch of both fun and calm. There were even places to socialize with other patients, with whom she had struck up friendships.
And suddenly, she had a vision of her professional future.
“I knew I wanted to go into some engineering field, and architectural engineering sort of got my attention," she said. "But being at CHOP gave me a purpose: I wanted to create things that would affect how people feel and make them comfortable and happy.”
Emily, 19, is now a rising sophomore in Penn State’s five-year architectural engineering program. Her hope is to eventually create health-care facilities that are pleasant, friendly, and accommodating, the way she found CHOP to be.
Erin Allen, PWC mentorship chairperson and a project manager with Torcon, nominated Emily for a scholarship after hearing about the teen from none other than Emily’s big brother, David Hontz, 25, a project engineer with Torcon.
When Allen meet Emily, she was impressed by her drive, as well as her commitment, which was all the more notable given her youth.
“Her dedication to what she is doing, and why, is truly motivating,” Allen said. “I believe her story speaks volumes at such a young age.”
Natalie Hagerty, CHOP’s senior director for facilities planning, said input from patient families is important to the hospital’s design processes.
“Our partnership with patient families is integral and invaluable, whether it’s brainstorming with the CHOP Youth Advisory Council," a patients’ group that advises the hospital, “or one-on-one patient discussion about what makes a truly memorable space, it’s no exaggeration to say that the patient perspective has a direct impact on the facilities that you see today,” Hagerty said.
“I am thrilled to hear that Emily was inspired by CHOP,” she added. “When she’s ready for a job, she knows who to call.”
Emily became interested in engineering through her brother, whom she used to visit when she was a kid and he was an engineering student at Penn State.
Back then, she wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to do. Then in her junior year of high school, she started getting sick.
The symptoms started as low energy, dizziness, and light-headedness. She was diagnosed with Crohn’s in early 2018 and was being treated at Nemours/Alfred I duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del.
“Things were pretty steady for a while. Then around January of 2019, things just sort of exploded, and I got really sick really fast,” said Emily, whose family then transferred her care to CHOP.
Emily said she was nervous about going to CHOP, a big city hospital, and she didn’t know what to expect. But the medical staff went to work right away, trying to relieve her discomfort and bring her escalated symptoms under control. The doctors and nurses, she said, were really warm and kind.
And then there was the place itself.
“My room was really colorful,” she said. “I just felt welcomed and relieved as soon as I got there.”
The colors, the brightness, and openness of the hospital design were high points of her stay. And then there was the Sea Garden, a rooftop oasis at CHOP’s Children’s Seashore House, the hospital’s inpatient rehab center.
“It was definitely one of my favorite places,” Emily said.
Her brother Dave gets excited, thinking about Emily’s future. Who knows? Maybe one day they’ll get to do a project together — he involved in the construction side, Emily in the design.
He’s proud of his sister’s spirit, which really shone through her long, tough hospitalization.
“It takes a certain type of person to draw positives from a negative experience,” said David, the oldest of the four Hontz siblings. “That’s just the sort of person Emily is. The Emily we know wouldn’t just take something lying down.”
For now, Emily’s Crohn’s disease seems to be under control with medication. She’s looking forward to continuing her studies, and she is grateful for the scholarships. Her mom, Cindy Hontz, is a physical therapist who does home health care. Her father, Jack Hontz, who was the band director for Strath Haven High School, died from a heart attack in 2017.
The financial assistance is appreciated, said Emily, but so is knowing that “there are people out there willing to encourage and help out women, specifically in this [engineering] field.”
It’ll be a few years before Emily gets to do a design project of her own, but she knows what she’d like it to be.