Carol O’Callaghan visits the new family room at the Mercy University Hospital’s Children’s Leukaemia Unit.
It’s the dread of every parent: their child is diagnosed with a serious illness and family life transfers from the comfort and ease of home to a hospital ward where maintaining any semblance of normality is challenged.
The only place to take a break is in a noisy canteen or a corridor, and the idea of slipping out to a coffee shop means being away from a needy child for too long.
Until this week — if previously you had visited the Children’s Leukaemia Unit at Cork’s Mercy University Hospital, the family room consisted of two worn sofas and a nest of tables shoved into a tiny room.
It was a space that would have struggled to accommodate one family, let alone several of the families of the 41 children currently undergoing treatment in the unit.
But thanks to a collaborative effort by a group, including interior design consultancy Optimise Design; a Gaisce bronze award-winner, a sofa maker, decorators and a joiner, plus the financial backing of furniture shop DFS, the unit now has a dedicated family room, designed to let adults and children relax away from the stresses of ward life.
The design concept focuses on a circus theme for the children with adult elements, the result of a brainstorming session between Optimise Design’s principals, Denise O’Connor and Catherine Crowe, (better known for a stint as RTÉ’s House Doctors), and the Gaisce awardee, Mallow teenager Emma O’Callaghan.
“I love design”, says Emma, “so when I saw a competition on Facebook last summer for someone to get involved in the project, I entered and didn’t tell anyone. I never thought I’d win. It’s brilliant to see some of my ideas used.”
She was 16 at the time, the upper age limit of children being treated in the unit, so she had a keen sense of what would work.
“She spent a day with us in Dublin gathering themes and ideas,” says designer Denise O’Connor. “We decided on the circus theme but we wanted the room to be calming, so we painted the walls in stripes like the big top to appeal to the kids, but kept to neutral colours to make it suitable for adults.”
At first glance, the room (which was once a neglected storage space), seems to be completely child-focussed with lots of toys and the circus theme, but it’s in the detail that a visitor sees how equally it caters for the whole family.
There’s not a bean-bag in sight, with furniture consisting of a sofa and stools. While simple in design, they’re also modern and comfortable with a robust look to help resist the wear and tear of children’s activities.
The main challenge for Denise, however, was to make it all happen within quite a small space.
“We didn’t want to make it too busy, but needed to have different areas within the space. It was important to spark the imagination of children and let them escape from the ward. “We had the sofa made with the comfort of adults in mind, and finished in a neutral so we could then introduce colour around the room with cushions, stools and circus themed signage.”
The finished design of the sofa is modular, enabling it to be broken up to provide separate seating areas when needed, or to remain as one unit for a family to curl up together and watch television.
“If the child is happy,” says Denise, “then the parents will relax.”
Storage for the all-important toys and games is accommodated around a large, flat-screen television, with additional low-level drawer units providing a surface for pushing dinky cars across and making jigsaws, thanks to some nifty joinery.
But in addition to a family-focussed approach to putting the room together, there were also practical considerations from the hospital’s perspective that impacted on the design.
“Clinical requirements needed to be integrated like hand-washing facilities and access to oxygen points,” says Micheál Sheridan, CEO of Mercy University Hospital Foundation.
“The children’s immune systems can be challenged so we couldn’t have carpet, and upholstery has to be practical and easy to clean.”
Such practicalities were accomplished with a subtle design eye so they do not take from the family focus of the space, but are incorporated into the decorating scheme in a way that is not immediately obvious to the visitor.
It’s clear from the personal interest taken in the project by everyone involved that it has fostered a huge amount of goodwill, but there has also been a positive spin-off for the hospital.
“Since we did this, we’ve become much more aware of space-planning and how we use the space available in the unit,” says Micheál.
“We’re now in the process of changing the function of two other rooms as a result and it will free up space for a new treatment room.”
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