The Northport VA Medical Center received a grant to beautify...

The Northport VA Medical Center received a grant to beautify the stairwell at its acute-care building as a way to encourage patients and employees to take the stairs instead of the elevator. The stairwell has been transformed into a lighthouse theme by artist Jeanne Santomauro Schnupp of Holtsville, seen here at the entrance of stairway 1. (April 18, 2012) Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

With soft lights, calming music and trompe l'oeil paintings creating a scene reminiscent of ascending a lighthouse, the newest renovation at the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center might make you want to stay a while -- just mind the stairs.

The paintings, lights and music were installed in the main stairwell at the VA's acute-care building this month as part of an initiative to encourage employees and patients to eschew the elevators and climb the stairs.

"Health care workers tend to have high levels of chronic diseases, many of which can be improved by improving physical fitness and physical activity," said Heidi Vandewinckel, employee assistance program coordinator at the Northport VA.

The Northport VA received a grant of $10,000 to renovate the stairs as part of a centralized VA program to improve employee health, Vandewinckel said.

Holtsville artist Jeanne Santomauro Schnupp, daughter of a World War II veteran, created the series of paintings that line the walls of the windowless stairwell, designing the interior to look as if one were climbing inside a lighthouse, looking out at Northport Harbor.

The VA also lined the plain, concrete stairs with blue cushioned flooring, to make the stairs easier on hips and knees, and replaced the institutional fluorescent lighting with nautical-style fixtures, said Annamarie Hyne, a registered nurse with the VA's occupational-health department.

Making such improvements to stairwells appears to lead to increased use of the stairs, bringing health benefits to users, according to data cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"People are slowly reporting that they're enjoying it, and using it more," Vandewinckel said. "They almost never know what to find, what music is playing when they walk in the stairwell."

On a recent afternoon, a steady stream of white-coated doctors, assistants in scrubs, and veterans carrying prescriptions climbed the stairs as classical music played from speakers.

"I think it's real nice -- it adds life as soon as you go on the stairs and see the pictures," said Brandon Samuel, a nursing assistant, as he carried a tub of specimens from the second floor.

But all the employees surveyed that afternoon said while they enjoyed the improved stairwell, they had regularly used the stairs before the change.

"It's wonderful," said Maribel Haddock, a medical support assistant and certified nurse practitioner. "I always take the stairs for exercise," she said. "I need to stay fit."

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