Richie Gommer IV is like many five-year-olds who grow anxious when they have to see the dentist to have a cavity filled. It’s hard to say goodbye to parents before entering the operating room, and children faced with separation often need oral premedication to quiet their fears.

But an innovative program at Christiana Care’s Roxana Cannon Arsht Surgicenter allows children to drive themselves to the operating room in a battery-powered vehicle, reducing anxiety in children and parents. The result has been less use of oral premedication.

“It’s amazing how much help this is to children emotionally,” said Mary K. Matthews, DMD, who is Richie’s dentist. “The car helps with the separation between parents and a child and that makes going to the OR a lot easier on everyone involved.”

On a January morning, Richie sat nervously in a surgical gown waiting to have his teeth cleaned and cavities filled. His mother and stepfather were there to offer reassurance that all would be well.

But what helped most was when anesthesiologist Stephen R. Tanner, M.D., popped in to see the family with an unexpected offer. Dr. Tanner, medical director of the Arsht Surgicenter, suggested a ride to the operating room in a white BMW convertible that Richie could drive.

At first, Richie was uncertain how much fun this would be and said no. He wasn’t interested.

But Dr. Tanner, who admits to being a big kid at heart, wore a welcoming smile as he pointed out the BMW’s rocking radio and cool flashing lights. He invited Richie to bring along his stuffed animal – a Minecraft creeper.

Sensing a positive change in her son, Lauren Blanch, lifted Richie onto the seat of the BMW. “Buckle your seat belt,” she said lightheartedly.

“It’s like a Mario car,” said stepdad Mike Dougherty. “I’ll walk next to you.”

Dr. Tanner kept a remote control at the ready to make sure there would be no collision with the walls. Gradually, in place of Richie’s anxious expression was a big grin, as he and his creeper turned the surgicenter hallway into their own private racetrack and made their way to the operating room.

“It’s great when parents can see their child going back with a smile, rather than tears,” Dr. Matthews said.

That’s what Dr. Tanner had in mind last year when he suggested that Christiana Care purchase two electric-powered vehicles for children headed for the operating room for a surgical appointment. He felt the child-size vehicles would be fun, but more importantly would be good medicine for children and parents.

Since October, when a blue Jeep and a white BMW began driving through the hallways of the Arsht Surgicenter, the use of pre-operative sedation has dropped from 28 percent of children to 8 percent.

“This decrease of almost 75 percent means a decreased length of stay after a procedure and increased satisfaction for patients and their parents,” said Nurse Manager Deborah C. Gigliotti, RN, MBA, CAPA. “Children have had an excellent experience, are wide awake and ready to go home.”

The Arsht Surgicenter typically schedules eight to 15 children’s dental procedures each week. It’s clear that lessening children’s fears is improving the quality of family care and in keeping with the Christiana Care Way, said Shawn R. Smith, MBA, vice president of Patient Experience.

“This type of effort shows our commitment to serve as respectful, expert, caring partners in the health of our neighbors,” Smith said.

“Some kids are nervous about what will happen in the OR and don’t want to leave mom and dad,” said Dr. Tanner. “When we put a child in a car, this eases the separation and makes the whole transition gentle and fun. Parents often take photos, excited that their child gets to drive to the operating room.”

Lauren Blanch agreed. She said her son Richie’s mood lifted because of driving the BMW.

“It’s nice to see he’s smiling,” she said.