About a year before her daughter's death in 2003, Leela Rao took the 8-year-old to a family reunion in Bangalore, India.

Rao's daughter, Priyanka, was a few years into a battle against leukemia.

Priyanka wanted to visit a children's cancer ward in Bangalore and brought a couple of suitcases full of toys and stuffed animals that she had received from "child-life" specialists at Children's Hospital. They work with families on everything from explaining medical procedures and what to expect to giving parents a Starbucks coupon and telling them to go relax for a couple hours.

Mother and daughter were shocked at the squalid conditions in the Indian hospital. Kids were jammed together on one floor. And the children wanted nothing to do with the stuffed animals. They were used to distract them when doctors and nurses poked them with needles.

Priyanka told her mother that she wanted to help establish a child-life specialist program in India that would help families navigate their hospital journeys. Priyanka died soon after she returned home to Minneapolis.

Rao, who works in wealth management at U.S. Bancorp, at first wanted nothing to do with hospitals after Priyanka died. Eventually, she started to volunteer and raise money for Children's.

"We had phenomenal people helping us, and I felt I needed to give back," Rao said.

To say she gave back may be an understatement.

Earlier this fall, Rao was honored by the Invest in Others Charitable Foundation for establishing the five-year-old Priyanka Foundation (www. thepriyankafoundation.org).

The foundation is demonstrating at an Indian hospital that child-life specialists are the human bridge between often-bewildering hospital protocols and the needs of the patient and family. It is a humane innovation that cuts through the medical nomenclature and procedures, helps relax the kids and families, and also saves precious health care dollars.

To date, the Priyanka Foundation, which has raised $150,000 and contributed countless volunteer hours, has served 5,000 Indian children and families.

The economic model is simple. In America, child-life specialists, who may cost about $70,000 a year in salary, provide information and support services and allow $500,000-a-year cancer doctors to focus on their work. If the child and family are more knowledgeable and at ease, there is less anxiety and confusion, and the doctors spend less time answering questions about ancillary matters.

The economic-value equation is similar in India, although the salaries are much lower.

Matt Zarracina, a consultant with Deloitte and volunteer with the Priyanka Foundation, took a sabbatical in 2013 to study the Indian model established by the Priyanka Foundation and Indian health professionals.

"A child-life practitioner saves about three staff hours for every child-life practitioner hour," Zarracina said last week in an e-mail message from Mexico, where he is on assignment. "We quantified the benefits.

"And we developed a road map to implement the program at new locations beyond the current program at Manipal Hospital" in Bangalore.

Manipal is a private hospital that provides a lot of charity care and that has ties to the University of Minnesota and is influential in Indian hospital best practices. Rao said other hospitals are now interested in replicating what's been tested there.

Rao, who was nominated for the international award by her U.S. Bank colleagues, said her work has helped her weather the loss of her daughter.

"Millions of dollars is spent on cancer research, but it was the child-life specialist that helped us survive that difficult and emotional journey," said Rao, who also has a 23-year-old son. "It also makes good business sense. There is a positive return on investment.

"A father in India wrote me about his daughter with cancer and how she used to hate the hospital. Now she loves it. She texts the child-life specialists [with questions]. Her today is more important to her than tomorrow."

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144