The Children in Hospital Ireland group literally makes hospitals a happier place for any child who has to be there — no matter how long their stay, writes Caroline Delaney.
Actor, Paul Newman, was definitely onto something when he noted that “there really is no such thing as a sick child; there are children who happen to be sick”.
And any child who is in hospital for an emergency treatment or management of an ongoing condition is still a child — they just can’t rampage around or pop out to the nearest playground.
Aches and pains, feelings of confusion; a pulverised routine and fear of what’s coming next — teamed with a worried parent who may have spent the night on a hospital floor and you have a recipe for a pretty miserable time which may just prompt a terror of any future medical interventions.
That’s where Children in Hospital Ireland (CHI) volunteers come in. They literally make hospital a happier place for a child who has to be there.
Children who are well enough to walk or be brought to the play area can enjoy a bright, colourful environment filled with books, jigsaws, games and arts and crafts. The volunteers also pop around and visit children who can’t leave their ward, bringing puzzles or some other distraction.
CHI was set up by Dublin mum, Patricia Hemmens, whose child was hospitalised in 1969.
The advice at the time was to not visit the child who might — naturally — get upset when their parent had to leave. She wasn’t happy with the stark, clinical experience her child endured for five weeks and teamed up with like-minded parents to form children’s charity, CHI.
CHI spokeswoman, Maura Lavelle, explains that each year there are more than 270,000 child visits to hospitals: “For more than 150,000 children this means an average of a three night stay. And 75,000 child inpatients are under four years of age and almost all admitted through A&E — an unexpected and unplanned visit.”
Most parents of young children wouldn’t plan a car journey of more than an hour without treats and activities on hand so once their hospitalised child is being looked after medically you can imagine the need for a few distractions might kick in. And a parent who probably hasn’t slept or eaten properly might not be best placed to improvise some fun games.
My own daughter was in Cork University Hospital a few years back and still has happy memories of the volunteers and the playroom there.
Thankfully, she wasn’t seriously ill and once her IV antibiotics started working she was eager to get the ‘sleepover’ party started. I, on the other hand, had left two other kids at home with my husband and had spent the night moving between the floor and an armchair.
Besides a bit of ‘stolen’ toast from my daughter’s tray, I hadn’t had much breakfast and was feeling grimy and crabby.
In fairness, there is a very handy little kitchenette in the children’s hospital wing for parents to use but you can’t bring hot drinks into the wards and can’t really leave your child alone too long, so when a smiling volunteer in a bright t-shirt popped in to invite us to a playroom we were both thrilled.
A flurry of make-and-do with glitter and stickers followed and I got my cup of tea. Small pleasures — but a big deal at the time. And my daughter even got a copy of Spraoi which all her classmates were using.
She had been fretting over missing out on this classic pre-Christmas annual loved by school children.
Maura laughs: “Yes it’s the little things that make a child happy but if they leave hospital with a good memory it makes it easier on them if they have to be treated again later.
"And Folens [publisher of educational material] are great — they donate 8,000 annuals to us every year.”
Disney Ireland is another company supporting CHI — they give them around 450 gift bags to distribute each year.
The 402 CHI volunteers are based at 13 hospitals nationwide and there are hopes to expand this scheme to other hospitals.
They are looking for volunteers with around 2-3 hours to spare per week. There’s a €10 membership fee but CHI cover the €300-plus cost of vetting and training.
“Volunteers must be over 18 years of age, enthusiastic, caring, reliable and be prepared to sign up for at least a year,” explains Maura.
While 95% of the volunteers are women, men are very welcome also. Volunteers are aged from 18 to some in their 80s.
They don’t have to have children of their own and don’t need any specific skills as the play is child-led.
Becky Pinckheard (far left) has been a CHI volunteer at Cork University Hospital for two years.
She got involved when she moved home to Ireland from America. The 29-year-old had volunteered as a ‘Candy-Striper’ in a hospital gift shop in the US so wanted something similar and which was at a consistent time each week. Becky, a civil engineer, finds the ‘work’ very enjoyable and rewarding:
“I love meeting new children and also the ones who have been in hospital for a while. I have one little girl who has been coming to the playroom for around seven weeks now.
"They are delighted to see you and while I love working with them I am really delighted when they are not visiting any more and have recovered and gone home.”
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