Our work is child’s play

THE Puffin ward in the children’s unit, Cork University Hospital, (CUH) is busy.

Curtains are drawn tightly around beds as medics complete their rounds, a nurse rejigs the staff schedule, and a Thomas the Tank Engine meal trolley stands in the corridor, to serve dinners to the children of the 78-bed unit. A little girl in multi-coloured pyjamas hurries past holding a board game, determined to reach the playroom before it closes for the evening.

Grace Mullane, 7, has cystic fibrosis (CF) and frequents the playroom, which is run by the Children in Hospital (CHI) volunteers.

“Grace can spend weeks on end in the hospital. If the playroom wasn’t there, she wouldn’t stay. She really loves the play room, especially the painting activities there. It’s a big room full of toys, what child wouldn’t like it?” says her mother, Margaret.

“It gives you peace of mind, that when you go away your child will be getting some attention. I’m pregnant, and while I went for my scans she was happy, out in the playroom with the volunteers — that’s all that any child really wants,” she says.

Grace contracted an infection and was admitted to a single room for one night. “She was meant to be in isolation, but she won’t stay there for long. She’s very active and won’t stay still for a second. She’s not used to sitting in a room, cooped up and being quiet.”

Established 40 years ago, Children in Hospital Ireland (CHI) is a voluntary service that provides play and activities for children in hospitals. The charity has 400 volunteers in 20 hospitals.

“Play is so important for children in hospital, because it gives them something normal and familiar to do when they’re there in an abnormal, foreign situation. Having toys, and interacting with other children, allows them just to be children, and not just patients,” says CHI chief executive officer, Mary O’Connor.

“A lot of the time, parents feel that they can’t leave their child’s bedside because the child will fret. Whereas, if a child is happily occupied doing an activity, it gives the parents a break to go for a coffee or a walk or a shower. It’s very important to give parents the essential break from being at the bedside all the time.

“In the 1970’s hospital was a pretty grim place for children. If a child had to go into hospital, the parents were more or less told that staff would let them know when the child was ready to go home. The parents were discouraged from being there, because it was thought it was too upsetting and that the children would settle better if the parent wasn’t there. Children were actually withdrawing from the horror of being in such a position,” says O’Connor.

Nuala Newton works as a CHI PlayWell volunteer in Cork University Hospital, for two hours, once a week.

“I like volunteering and I get great satisfaction from it. The playroom is a place where children feel safe and relaxed. It is used as a distraction and helps the child deal with the hospitalisation,” says Newton, a special needs assistant in a primary school, who also volunteers as a National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) tutor for adults with literacy difficulties.

“The children come down to the playroom in the morning, and go back to the ward for lunch, and come straight back afterwards. They’d often be outside waiting for the playroom to open.

“I love doing arts and crafts with them, and I bring ideas from my school, too, and they love that. They’re delighted when they come in, because there’s so much to play with, and, often, the children don’t want to leave the hospital, because it’s like Smyth’s toy store here in the playroom.

“Role play is vital for children. They can be whatever they like when they’re role-playing, be it a doctor, nurse, teacher or a shopkeeper. They can forget why they’re here and it takes their mind off the medications or the IV lines in their hands. They’re not afraid to come back to the children’s unit, because they’ve such a good time playing,” says Newton.

CHI volunteers in the CUH work with a play specialist employed by the HSE, who understands the emotional, social and psychological needs of children.

“The CUH is lucky to have a play specialist. She really does make a big difference and supports the volunteers,” says O’Connor.

“Play specialists are qualified in using specialised, volunteer, therapeutic play to help children to cope in hospital. They prepare children for blood tests and surgery. You can teach a child about cardiac surgery using dolls and drawings, so they won’t be upset by having a drain or a scar when they wake up.”

CHI also creates socialising outlets for adolescents in hospital. The charity recently established ‘teen nights’ in Our Lady’s Hospital, Crumlin, whereby teenagers participate in fun activities or watch DVDs together. CHI hopes to establish this service in other hospitals. CHI runs a JustAsk helpdesk in hospitals, offering advice to parents, children and carers.

“We’d like parents to know about CHI, so should their child have to go into hospital, they’ll know there’s advice, support and information available for them to make the hospital experience easier for them,” says O’Connor.

The €1.5m refurbishment of the children’s unit will include a refurbishment of the playroom.

“They are going to be expanding the unit to take in services being provided in the Mercy hospital. Patient numbers are going to go up and the playroom will be inadequate,” says O’Connor.

“CHI volunteers raised money years ago for the refurbishment of the playroom, but we haven’t been able to progress that project until now. It’ll be much-improved, with purpose-built storage and a layout with different areas for different-aged children.”

CHI receives government and HSE funding but is mostly reliant on donations, fundraising and volunteers.

“Our volunteers give selflessly of their time to provide the normal experience for children in hospital. They provide play and take children’s minds off what’s happening to them,” says O’Connor.

“Hail, rain or snow, the volunteers turn up because they know how important it is for them to be there. They make a commitment to be reliable and punctual as the children are so dependent on them. We really value them and we think our volunteers are just wonderful.”

CHI are seeking PlayWell volunteers aged 18+ for all hospitals. All CHI volunteers undergo Garda vetting and receive training from CHI.

* www.childreninhospital.ie, LoCall: 1890252682

Give a little, it would help a lot

Cork University Hospital (CUH) Charity Fundraising manager, Joe Browne, is urging the people of Cork to continue to raise money for the €1.5 million refurbishment of the children’s unit.

It was built in the 1970s and there are a number of needs such as en-suite rooms, isolation rooms for children who are susceptible to infection, televisions, and comfortable folding chairs for parents who need to spend time with their child. “We need to bring it to a standard that people would be comfortable with,” says Browne.

“I understand what it’s like to be with a child in hospital. When you’re dependent on the hospital and are a parent, you become part of the hospital,” says Browne, who has a son with Cystic Fibrosis and who launched his own, separate CF charity nine years ago.

“The people of Cork should get behind this fund-raising effort. It’s fundraising for something that you can see, touch and feel. It’s coming up to Christmas and people may be deciding who they’re going to give Christmas boxes to. If they could even give us a few bob, we’d be very grateful for it,” he says.

“This project is all our own, let’s wrap it up in red and white and embrace it.”

The unit looks after children aged from two days to 16 years. Each year 7,500 children are admitted to the unit, while 5,000 attend the day unit and 10,000 the outpatient department.

CUH Charity will hold an organised walk from Blackrock Castle to Rochestown on Saturday Dec 15. It costs €20 per adult to participate, and there will be children’s activities on the day. www.cuhcharity.ie

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