Documentary shows how aquariums bring 'A Sense of Wonder' to children's hospital

March 25, 2024
Girl wearing a headscarf, mask and pink top looks at fish in an aquarium.
MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children's Hospital patient Marley Miller, 6, has kids’ B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia. She's featured in a documentary about the hospital's aquariums, which she loves to visit. Images from "A Sense of Wonder"

A new documentary shows how benefactor Shawn Jenkins brings the wonder he felt as a child around aquariums to the Charleston hospital that now bears his name. The two-part series “A Sense of Wonder,” available on YouTube, chronicles the process of designing, delivering and filling multiple aquariums in the MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital.

“It’s like a portal to be transported out of your current environment. If we could just give somebody a few minutes of relief and contribute to their healing and their recovery, that would be as high as we could reach,” Jenkins said.

Man wearing a blue polo gestures. The words Shawn Jenkins, benefactor MUSC SJ Children's Hospital appear at the bottom of the screen. 
Shawn Jenkins, the children's hospital's namesake, loved aquariums as a child. As an adult benefactor, he knew he wanted to bring beautiful fish tanks to hospitalized kids.

Jenkins, who as a preteen had about a dozen aquariums in his bedroom at one point, knows just how fascinating they can be to a kid.

The documentary features a child who demonstrates that beautifully: Marley Miller. She routinely visits the fish tanks, wearing fuzzy, colorful slippers; whimsical dresses; tops and pants; and sometimes, a scarf covering her head to keep her warm. 

Her father, Tom, is right there beside her. “She just turned 6. So she was diagnosed with kids’ B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The worst news you could ever possibly imagine. Not to mention just for yourself, but for your kid as well,” he said.

He leaned toward Marley. “I love you so much,” he told her, as he teared up in one of the documentary’s emotional scenes. Marley clearly loves him, too, nuzzling him playfully. 

The aquariums serve as not only a focal point but also an unofficial form of first aid for children and their families. “They need something that isn't medicine-oriented, but also it's been proven to help calm people that are in distress,” Jenkins said of the tanks.

Aquarium with purple coral.  
One of the hospital's four fish tanks.

The documentary also shows how much planning and work went into the hospital’s four tanks. Mat Roy, who’s been custom building aquariums for more than 30 years and has been featured on the National Geographic show “Fish Tank Kings,” is a key player. 

“Creating the environment for fish is just as important as keeping the fish because you have a responsibility to that fish that you're putting in the aquarium, that you want to give them the best home possible. Every one of these aquariums is an expression of art,” Roy said.

Mark Davis, owner of a business called The Fish Guy in Charleston, focuses on, of course, the fish – and their worlds. “There's nothing in these aquariums that I don't touch. The responsibility is solely on me,” he said.

“A Sense of Wonder” shows Davis describing the different habitats of the aquariums and the different fish that live in them. Setting up the aquariums is just one of many steps in the process of creating the dazzling displays. “What you need in an aquarium are bacterium. And so that takes between four, six, sometimes even eight weeks to really get set up correctly,” he said. 

Child with red shirt looks at fish in aquarium. 
The aquariums can be a welcome distraction to hospitalized children and their families. 

“And it's not just put fish into an acrylic box, right? It's literally, from the filtration to the elements that are inside the aquarium, all so important for the fish.”

All of that takes place behind the scenes so aquariums like the 900-gallon tank in the hospital lobby can appear to provide playful fish with beautiful environments effortlessly. Some tanks feature ocean fish, others fish that live in freshwater. 

Marley has one she likes to frequent. “So probably one of your favorite fish is up on the seventh floor. Do you remember which one it is?” her dad asked in the documentary.

“Nemo and Dory,” she answered. Nemo and Dory are orange and white clownfish, just like the cartoon star of the movie “Finding Nemo.”

“And Mrs. Puff,” Marley added.

“The puffer fish,” Tim Miller said.

Man stands in front of a table holding colorful coral that will be installed in an aquarium. 
Creating the habitats for the fish tanks was a painstaking process. Here, a habitat under construction at RockNReefs Immersed Environments.

Puffer fish are among the aquariums’ stars, with stomachs that can fill with water or air as a defense mechanism to make them look much bigger.

Like those flexible fish, the aquariums can also make something else seem a little bigger: the world of the children’s hospital. For kids who stay there for days or weeks or even months, the tanks are a beautiful way to travel mentally beyond the building’s walls – and maybe feel a little better along the way.

Shawn Jenkins hopes that the aquariums can do that – and maybe more. “There's some research that shows that when a child can identify with some sort of animal or pet or turtle, they can ask questions about it. They can kind of get more comfortable with maybe some of the procedures that they're gonna go through. Maybe an operation or a scan or whatnot. So it's an interesting way not just to teach kids about that but to emotionally help them cope with what they're going through.”

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