Children's hospice makes sure families experience a truly precious Christmas

Making special seasonal memories is of huge importance for LauraLynn children’s hospice, writes Jen Hogan

Lorna Collins with Evan Swayne (12)

CHRISTMAS is a magical time — a time for children. LauraLynn, Ireland’s only Children’s Hospice, makes sure that the very special children and their families, who avail of LauraLynn’s services throughout the year, including over the festive period, enjoy all the joys that the season has to offer.

The LauraLynn house opened its doors in 2011 following the fundraising efforts of Jane and Brendan McKenna who lost their daughters Laura at four years old and Lynn at 13. In that time over 300 children and their families have received the care, comfort and respite needed as they face the overwhelming prospect of losing their son or daughter.

LauraLynn prides itself on putting “life into a child’s day and not days into a child’s life”. Clinical nurse specialist, Ann Booth, explains that for families of children with complex needs, Christmas can be particularly challenging.

“A lot of families will have their child come in for short breaks before Christmas to allow them to do the basics, the practicalities of life, sort the turkey, do some Christmas shopping,” says Ann.

Staff are keen that the child who is availing of care gets out and about to experience as much normality as possible. “They will take them to Dundrum [shopping centre] to experience the magical atmosphere, or to various events in the locality, depending on how stable the child is at the time,” says Ann.

The hospice has its own Christmas party in mid-December which allows the children who attend LauraLynn to meet Santa without the struggles of town, steps and queueing.

LauraLynn staff Ann Booth, Lorna Collins, and Michelle Hartnett, with clients Isabella Villena (5) and Maximus Murray (3)

“Here, it’s for the children and for their family and siblings,” Ann says. “A lot of families would say it’s the first time their child has got to meet Santa. We have fabulous pictures of the children with Santa. Pictures that the families will always have. It’s part of the memory making.

“For the families who come to stay, it’s lovely to have an environment that’s Christmassy, that’s fun, that’s decorated. It’s so positive, it’s so good and it’s uplifting for families.

“At any stage, because we are a children’s hospice, we could have a child that has come in for end of life care and at the same time we could have children that have come in to us for short breaks — so we always have to be mindful of that,” Ann explains.

In supporting the very different needs of the respective families Ann explains that they try to create as positive an environment as possible.

“For families whose children have come in for end of life care, we will find out what the family’s wishes are — if there’s any particular memory making they want to do.

“Every child is individual and every family’s needs are individual, there may be siblings and it’s Christmas for them. We support the family in every way that we can.”

Volunteer co-ordinator Lorna Collins, says that their approximately 160 volunteers, help out in a variety of different ways in the build up to Christmas.

Musicians, students, drivers, people who help to decorate the building, helpers with the administrative work involved in organising Christmas events and people who sort donated toys are among those who play an essential role.

Ahead of ‘Light up LauraLynn’ which took place on November 27, volunteers tested lights, painted Christmas themes on windows and assembled approximately 15 Christmas trees. With large crowds present, all hands were required on deck to help with the many stalls and activities organised for the families and attendees of the event.

“Every family, both active and bereaved, is invited to LauraLynn’s Christmas party,” Lorna says. “It has become so big now that it has to be held off site.

“Most of the volunteers will wear some kind of a costume, from Snowmen to Elves — even Minions make an appearance!

“A lot of the families who have been bereaved will still have a strong sense of connection to LauraLynn,” Lorna adds. “Often times when they come back, they remember the good times that they had when they were here.

“A lot of the families would have siblings that know each other and would find great support in each other.”

Michelle Hartnett, play specialist and also part of the bereavement team at the hospice, says that setting up the right atmosphere is of utmost importance as is engaging in activities that capture the essence of Christmas. Such activities include decorating the doors to the family rooms in a festive theme and partaking in the 12 days of Christmas, whereby different companies and organisations come in.

As part of memory and legacy making in LauraLynn, Michelle explains that along with “entertaining the children while they’re in, availing of the services — we want to make sure that the families have tangible memories and tangible pieces that their child has created for the many years to come”.

John O’Brien ‘s stays in LauraLynn changed the family’s life.

Michelle recalls one family whose child sadly passed away before a decoration that the child had been making was given to her family. When her mother returned the following year and collected the decoration, she said she felt as if she had received another gift from her daughter.

Christmas cards and baubles are also made from hand and footprints, as Michelle explains that not every child has the ability to hold a paintbrush. “Finger prints and footprints are unique,” she says.

“We try to adapt and mould into Christmas trees and snowmen so as to involve as much of the child as possible.”

John O’Brien aged 5 is from Wicklow. He loves lights and music and is the third child in a family of four siblings. Ann, John’s mother, explains that John’s condition is so rare that the geneticist in Crumlin Hospital says it will be documented as “John’s syndrome”.

The family spent two years living in the Ronald McDonald House beside Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children, as John took seizure after seizure.

“John needs 24 hour care,” Ann says. “He can’t really do anything for himself. It’s really tough with the other kids, trying to find time for them. You can’t exactly just hop in the car and take John off. He’s on oxygen as required and gets suctioned quite a bit. He’s on a good bit of medication for his seizures.”

While in Crumlin, John was referred to LauraLynn but Ann says she was initially reluctant because she didn’t “know what it was about”. John began to attend LauraLynn after he finally came home from Crumlin, which Ann says changed their lives dramatically.

“If it wasn’t for LauraLynn we wouldn’t be able to spend time with the other children — normal things like going to the cinema, taking them off for a treat, or just sitting down and chatting with them.”

Respite breaks for John leading up to Christmas enable Ann to take the children to see Santa and go to shopping centres and let them see the lights, even visit family. Last Christmas, Ann’s mother was in hospital and the break meant she could arrange to visit her more easily.

“I couldn’t imagine life with John, without the respite” Ann adds. “I think about these things daily. What if a family member was sick? What if I had to go somewhere?

“They’re absolutely fantastic. Any questions that you have, any other support that you need, they access it for you. John loves it as well. The sensory room is absolutely fantastic!”

To help LauraLynn raise the €3.5m required to take care of children like John and their families, Christmas gifts of care and Christmas cards can be purchased at their shop, online at lauralynn.ie/shop or 01-2893151


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