Week 29 - Birmingham Children's Hospital Charity
It is very rare that I'm speechless. I usually have a lot to say, as most of you know. But this week, for a very rare occasion, I was lost for words.
It was always going to be an emotional week. Being at a children's hospital, for me anyway, is a trip down memory lane. Whereas I didn't have my open-heart surgery as a child at Birmingham Children's Hospital (it was in fact at Bristol) it really didn't make much of a difference. Those smells, that feeling, the beeps, sounds and noises all transported me back to a pre-adolescent Luke; the Luke that remembers so vividly sitting on a hospital bed waiting to be wheeled into surgery.
It's weird. I can remember everything about my time at hospital: every single detail. But what I can't remember, at all, is the time before that. My childhood pre-surgery is pretty much a blur, only pieced together by photos and elusive home videos.
This week allowed me in some strange way to get some closure.
Arriving on Monday morning at Birmingham Children's Hospital Charity, I headed to the fundraising office just opposite the hospital. A bright and airy space plastered with pictures of every staff member as a child, it had a sense of fun mixed with sincerity. I didn't get much of a chance to catch my breath. Nicki, the PR manager had a jam-packed week lined up for me and within a few minutes of being whisked around the office I was taken on a hospital tour.
They wanted me to get a real feel for what the charity do to support the hospital. The place is pretty remarkable, it didn't feel like a hospital at all. With music being pumped across all the corridors and bright coloured lights lining the walls, it was the happiest hospital I had ever visited.
We all know how stretched the NHS is. With budget cuts left right and centre and as a result, some of the more 'non-essential, non-life saving' items are no longer a priority. But, because of the charity, these just as vital services are being funded. You walk those halls for 5 minutes and you'll soon find out that every single child that goes through those doors is met with a happy smile and an incredibly adapted environment to aid recovery, both medically and holistically. Toys, games, fun spaces and bright walls are as just as important in a children's hospital as the medical equipment that keeps them alive. They go hand in hand. Which is why it's so lovely to see it in such abundance at Birmingham.
One of those added extra services that are provided by the charity are the Giggle Doctors. A team of highly qualified professional actors and singers, employed by another charity Theodora, that come in and make kids laugh. It's very Patch Adams (if you haven't seen the remarkable Robin Williams film I suggest you go home tonight and rent it). They walk the wards of the hospital and have one mission, to make kids laugh. Taking the seriousness out of being poked and prodded every 5 seconds, they provide a light relief from what can be a pretty traumatising experience for these young ones. I had the privilege of following them around for a few hours and I must say, I left in a little bit of pain. Good pain; cheek pain. I did not stop smiling for the whole two hours. Remarkable.
I then had to put my smiles on hold because the afternoon held a little surprise. A few years ago a University student Jamie wanted to try and help the charity. With a love for horror and a good idea, he started the first ever Birmingham Zombie walk. A few years on it's grown in its 1000's and is now one of the biggest events on the charities calendar. I joined him and an incredible young man called Rafe, who alone has raised £50,000 for the charity, for a Zombie make-over. It's probably best I say no more; just watch the video below.
We had so much fun running around Birmingham and promoting the event, but getting the special FX make-up off wasn't as easy as I had thought!
Saying thank you is so important. There are so many kind people out there, who raise millions and millions every year for great causes across the country, so a simple thank you is the least you can do. Something, Birmingham Children's Hospital Charity do very well. I spent my Tuesday morning writing Thank You letters. Regardless of the amount, the same letter was written. From £20 up to £2,000 it was so inspiring to see so many people doing their bit, however big or small to help the charity out. It was a real privilege to be able to write some of those letters.
But, charities can raise money in so many other weird and wonderful ways and I like Birmingham's creative flare!
They have recently launched their Big Hoot 2015, a trail of 89 large owl sculptures all painted and decorated by various different artists and public figures (there's even an Ozzy Ozbourne one!). So in the spirit of getting stuck in, I walked around Birmingham, trail maps and collection bucket in hand and met with the hundreds of people in search of the owls.
With a downloadable app and even a store selling merchandise, the charity have really nailed being commercially creative with a great handful of PR. It's events like this that not only help promote a charity but also give something back to the local community. Which to be perfectly honest is the reason for its success. You get more from people when you give a little back in return!
Tired and needed my bed after walking like what seemed the marathon, I got some rest.
Walking onto the renal ward on Wednesday morning was a pleasant surprise. There were more toys and brightly painted walls than those grey spaces you become so accustomed to when walking into a hospital. Sure you still have the anti-bac gel and those familiar sounds, but it wasn't like any ward I had been on before. I got to spent some time with patients as young as 3 years old who were hooked up to a dialysis machine. Now most adults in that position would be quite doom and gloom, but these kids - they didn't have a care in the world. Their spirit and innocence shone through so much so I left so uplifted that I couldn't quite get my head around. I had just spent a few hours in a ward with incredibly sick and vulnerable children, yet the buzz and happiness in there was more concentrated than anything I had ever experienced. Goes to show really doesn't it, that however bad a situation you can still be happy and be grateful.
Then on Thursday I was given a gift; a thank you from somebody up there looking after me. Most people associate gifts to that of some monetary value but, this was a gift that money couldn't buy. I was given the opportunity to meet a young man called Caleb.
Caleb is 10 years old and was flown over from Dublin to have emergency open-heart surgery. I sat opposite this 10-year-old boy and gazed into his eyes and in that moment saw my younger-self. I was the exact same age when I too was rushed into hospital to have my own life saving surgery. But for me, as an adult, could now see it from both sides. Caleb on my right, his mum on my left and I felt every single emotion from him, an excited young boy and his mother, a worried parent.
It was a true honour to be given the opportunity to speak with and meet the young man that afternoon. To be able to impart some wisdom and strength on this young scared little boy and be given the opportunity to tell him that;
"You know what, it's going to be ok." was so very special.
But then the gift kept on giving. I was invited to observe his surgery from the viewing platform. I said yes, of course, but every fibre inside of me told me that what I was about to witness would change my life; and it did. As I stood in a small room, only separated by a single pane of glass, my heart began to weep. The tears flooded out of my eyes like a gushing waterfall as I watched one of the most prestigious heart surgeons in the country save young Caleb's life. I can only really describe this moment as an out of body experience. As if I was watching myself being opened up those 18 years ago and given a second chance at life. In that very moment it made me realise that there was a reason for my second chance. That everything I had done, achieved and worked for to this point in my 26 years was for this; to give back to others as they had given back to me.
I sit writing this with tears flowing down my face. I sometimes get slightly angry with language because it's at times like this where there really are no words that can fully describe a complex string of feelings and emotions, like the ones I feel right now. It's taken me 2 hours to get to a point to be able to articulate how this unbelievable and life changing moment has affected me. I will never forget this experience. I will never forget this remarkable privilege bestowed upon me by the charity and I am so humbled and grateful for what they have given me. Watching his surgery has made me more determined than ever to continue the work I feel I was meant to do.
Every single one of us goes through our lives wondering what our purpose is. Wondering if the job we are doing or the actions we take in our lives are the right ones.
Follow your heart. Because we are all here to do something extraordinary; but it's you that has to choose whether you will follow that purpose, or let it linger by your side. Letting go of fear and just enjoying the fruits of life is so very important. When I let those feeling drive me 18 months ago I changed the landscape of my future forever, so much so that I keep receiving gifts beyond my wildest of dreams.
Thank you Birmingham Children's Hospital & Charity. What you have given me this week is more than you will ever know.