Badge of courage: The Marvel illustrator helping out the real-life superheroes

Back row (l-r): Will Sliney, Derval O’Rourke, Peter O’Mahony, Peter Stringer, Zoe Hastings (CUH Hero from Rochestown), and Lisa Jordan. Front row (l-r): CUH Heroes Sarah Dorney from Carrigaline, Jamie Burke from Donoughmore, and Adam King from Killeagh. Picture: Jim Coughlan

Marvel illustrator Will Sliney is one of many well-known people who has lent his talents to anew fundraising initiative for CUH children’s unit. Marjorie Brennan meets the real-life heroes of the unit

Will Sliney knows superheroes inside out; the Ballycotton native has garnered legions of fans drawing Spiderman for the legendary comic brand Marvel.

But when his son Tadhg was born at Cork University Hospital nine months ago, he saw some real-life superheroes at work.

“When Tadhg was born, he spent a week down in the nursery there and I’ve never met more incredible people. They were absolutely fantastic. We knew he was going to be fine; they were just waiting for his sodium level to come up after he was born, as sometimes it takes a while. It ended up being the best level of care we could ever have gotten, because they were monitoring him so much. We had a nurse with us the entire time, it was almost like intense training on how to be a parent.”

Now Sliney is drawing on what he does best for the children’s ward in CUH, coming on board for the CUH Heroes ambassador initiative which aims to promote the extraordinary work done in the unit as well as raise much-needed funds for equipment.

I was asked to do a drawing of the ambassadors, but obviously the kids are the real heroes, so I’ve included some superhero kids and I’ve also created a new logo, a super-hero style branding for the unit as well.

I meet Sliney at the Seahorse Ward in the children’s unit, where a Superhero Day is being held to launch the ambassador initiative. There is no shortage of real-life heroes in the room, from the staff, patients, and parents to members of the emergency service and the sporting ambassadors and legends who have come in to support the cause.

Among them are the Munster and Ireland rugby heroes Peter Stringer and Peter O’Mahony, both of whom say being parents has brought home to them the vital work of the children’s unit.

“What they do here is incredible,” says Stringer. “I have a two-year-old at home and it becomes a lot more real, you hope you never to have to be here, but you see the kids here and you can associate with it a lot more.

“I spent many years playing and so many kids have come to matches to support us — without them, it’s nothing. So to be able to come back here and see them wearing Munster jerseys, it’s very special.”

O’Mahony, who is dad to a three-year-old and a 10-month-old, echoes that sentiment.

“Having kids myself, I am hugely lucky that they are very healthy. You see the flip side when you come in here, some of the children are very sick. I’m very proud to help generate some interest and raise some money to hopefully make their lives a small bit better.

"The kids here are so impressive, they are the real superheroes, the way they battle through, although it’s great to see them having fun here today and to see them getting better, too.”

Cork hurling hero Eoin Cadogan says he always enjoys coming to meet the children in the unit.

“They say nicer things than some of the supporters,” he laughs. “Sometimes when you are involved in sport, you can become completely consumed by it, and I think it is very good to give something back.

The staff here also deserve huge credit for making such a friendly environment and also the parents, they are so committed to their children and making sure they are healthy and happy.

Former sprinter and now a big favourite with kids due to her coaching role on the TV show Ireland’s Fittest Family, Derval O’Rourke is another sporting hero happy to lend her support to the ambassador initiative. Her son Archie is only eight weeks old and she tells me how they have relied on the service for daughter Dafne.

“We are so fortunate, my daughter is nearly four and she has only ended up in hospital a couple of times for really minor stuff, but they always treated her so fantastically well, so I am delighted to do whatever I can to help out. The drawings are fantastic — the kids really are superheroes, they are amazing.”

Professor Deirdre Murray, clinical lead in paediatrics at CUH, says over 10,000 children are seen in the children’s unit every year, across in-patient and outpatient services.

“With the ambassador initiative, we want to try to raise awareness of the work we do in the Munster region. For us, the children who come into us every day are the heroes and it is a chance for them to meet their heroes as well.”

According to Murray, the children’s unit is still facing huge challenges in terms of funding and resources.

“Our biggest issue at the moment is that we are still waiting for final approval on a new in-patient unit for children in Cork. We moved out of the old in-patient unit three years ago now and the baby ward is in a modular unit, which is a prefab. The older children from two to 16 are in one ward upstairs which wasn’t designed as a children’s unit. Phase one of the build was the outpatients’ unit which is beautiful, it’s child-friendly, and the children are much happier there.

“We want to be able to provide that level of care in a new in-patient unit as well. We are continuing to raise money for equipment for the in-patient unit, and we are just hoping all the time that we will get the final sign-off, that the build can start. Obviously, that is something we are worried about and we want to make sure that is still on the agenda.

“The children of Munster attend our unit and only about 2% or 3% of them will have to be referred on to Dublin.

The National Children’s Hospital is a fantastic thing for the country but the majority of children in the Cork region won’t ever have to go to Dublin, they will be cared for in Cork. We think they should be getting the same level of care here in Cork that they would get in the National Children’s Hospital.

Murray says the environment in which children are treated can have a huge impact on their wellbeing.

“[In the outpatients unit] we have lovely playrooms, and an art therapist who does arts and crafts with the children before they go in, that has made a huge difference. Before that opened, they were in the adult outpatients, so they were sitting with sick adults and by the time they came into us, they were quite nervous and anxious. It is totally different now in the child-friendly environment, they skip into the room. Other things we are trying to get funding for at the moment is an ultrasound machine to improve our ability to get intravenous access for children with whom we have difficulty getting in lines because we can guide the needle with an ultrasound.

“Little things like that, which are not provided by the HSE, can make a huge difference to children and their parents.”

It is not just superheroes of the two-legged variety who I have the honour to meet; one of the biggest draws is Stanley the therapy dog whose presence on the unit has been a big hit with staff and patients alike.

“I volunteer for the Irish Therapy Dogs and myself and Stanley come to the children’s ward every Friday for one hour,” says owner Carmel Keelan. “He’s famous, everyone knows Stanley in CUH,” she laughs.

Stanley is completely unruffled as little Samuel O’Regan leans in for a cuddle and kiss. Samuel’s mum Farrah tells me about their experience as her husband Darragh chases the lively four-year-old down the hospital corridor.

“We have been coming here since Sam was born, he has a congenital heart defect. When he was born he went straight to the neo-natal unit; he was supposed to be discharged after 48 hours, but when he was just over a day old, he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. We were under the care of Dr [Stephen] O’Riordan and when [Sam] was 10 days old, he got an insulin pump and then got a continuous glucose monitor to monitor his blood sugars.”

Samuel’s heart surgery was a success and he now attends the diabetic clinic at CUH every four months. “He’s delighted to come in here. He loves the attention from all the nurses. He doesn’t get upset, he’s treated as a child first and foremost, not a patient. He’s flying now,” says Farrah.

She says she is hugely thankful to the staff at the unit for their support during what was an incredibly tough time.

I can’t speak highly enough of the nurses, doctors and consultants. It was a hard time... but they kept us afloat.

Outside, at the hospital entrance, the superhero ambassadors and their mini-counterparts assemble for pictures, wearing t-shirts bearing the shield that Sliney has designed. Expertly marshalling the younger participants in the photoshoot is clinical nurse manager of the children’s unit, Marie Watson. I watch as she puts them at their ease, dispensing comfort, humour and empathy in perfectly judged measures. And I think how true the saying is — not all superheroes wear capes.

- See www.cuhcharity.ie for more information

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