Royal Manchester Children's Hospital Charity
It’s mid December and for the last few weeks I’ve been having a good oggle as more and more sparkly lights go up in people’s houses and on the high streets around Britain. From the more outlandish inflatable santas to the twinkly fir tree on the corner of my road that greets me and tells me I’m nearly home. This is a magical time of year for many people, excited at the prospect of eating chocolate for breakfast and eventually passing out in a food coma on the sofa surrounded by paper, pressies and loved ones.
For the children and families in Manchester children’s hospital however this is an altogether different time of year. These children find must their Christmas light elsewhere, be it in the home-made decorations adorning their hospital beds, the love of family or in the acts of kindness from staff and volunteers at the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital Charity (RMCHC). I was fortunate to be part of several such acts this week…
Our motley crew on my first day consisted of RAF Father Christmas and his elves, myself and fellow reindeers from RMCHC, each armed with bags of presents on a mission to share some christmas cheer. As we rounded the corner of the high dependency unit, we could hear the spread of excited little whispers as the children spied Father Christmas for the first time. The children in these wards require extensive observation, intervention and monitoring and whilst some were not quite so aware of their surroundings, their bodies busy battling illness, we chatted with parents and left each child with a gift regardless of awareness. One child in particular Holly* in intensive care touched us all. Holly’s father explained how she had battled bravely through her birthday despite chemotherapy and as she lay there smiling peacefully surrounded by cuddly toys and cosy rainbow blankets I could not begin to imagine how he was feeling. It felt so frustrating that all we could do to help them as we parted company was to leave Holly with a Christmas present, for which Holly’s father shook our hands so firmly and sincerely that it took the four of us all we could muster to keep it together as we moved onto the next bed.
With the severity of some of the conditions facing children at the hospital it is all too easy to forget that children still need fun and laughter and this is something RMCHC values highly. On my second day I had the unexpected delight of meeting Dr Bungee. Dr Bungee is not just a regular doctor, he is in fact a doctor of giggles. A “giggle doctor”, who’s job is to give the gift of laughter to sick and disabled children (and I thought I had the nicest job!). The Giggle Doctors are provided to the hospital by Theodora Childrens Charity, a separate charity funded in part by RMCHC amongst other hospital charities (for more on them see blog here). Myself and Susan, lead play co-ordinator at the hospital, accompanied Dr Bungee on some of the wards. Our disney guitar playing in the corridor even meant we to got Manchester’s lead nurse, Walter Tann, joining in on the fun!
From the moment Dr Bungee comes bouncing towards you like zebedee, you can’t help but become infected with his energy and genuine zest for life. Even if he did introduce me as his grandmother, I have to admit his jokes and tricks had me and the children creasing up and he seemed to just what to say to get each child laughing and relaxing by the end of his visit. We are so lucky to have the NHS but with resources and budgets now tighter than a santa in spandex, services like the Giggle Doctors and christmas visits are reliant upon society recognising the value in such things. Whilst these visits might not provide a medical cure, they have the potential to bolster patients’ outlooks and assist recovery and if nothing else provide some temporary distraction from all the wires and monotonous beeps.
On Thursday night I was fortunate to be asked to volunteer at the carols in the city concert at Manchester cathedral, a beautiful evening with choirs, soapstars and a chance for the local area to come together and celebrate the work of the RMCHC and show their support. RMCHC don’t just fund care they also support treatment and research and this concert was designed to raise money for the One Big Toy appeal, a campaign to build a multi-sensory room. This room will help every child, not just the ones that are well enough to play with a doll or train this Christmas.
After our present delivering was done, carols sung and I’d sewn my sides up from my encounter with Dr Bungee, there was time for a swift mince pie before commencing a tour around the children’s hospital with Sam, former nurse turned charity staff. The hospital at Manchester is very new and it is the largest single site children’s hospital in the country. The emerald green of RMCHC is ubiquitous on the wards and you get a real sense how well this charity is integrated within the hospital it serves. I met the wonderful play staff and learnt a little about the inventive ways that they try to make hospital less scary for children, using dolls and toys to teach them what to expect from intimidating things like MRI scans and tracheostomies. The wards too have all been designed by the patients themselves and with their comfort in mind. As a space geek and Tim Peake fanatic, one of my favourite areas was based around the alien race of the queesies sent to the hospital from outer space to find a cure for terrible diseases. The beds, play and waiting areas felt more like you were piloting an alien spacecraft than sitting in a sterile hospital in the sense you would traditionally picture!
As I walked along one of the suspended walkways over the atrium below I could see windows into bedrooms where children were sitting, some playing and some simply watching the bustle below. One of the girls caught my eye as she waved to us from the window and I asked Sam what she was doing there. Sam explained that the children in the windows are the bone marrow transplant children and as there is such a high risk of infection inherent in the procedure, many are sadly confined to their rooms for several weeks, often months, whilst they recover. Sam went onto explain this is why their rooms overlook the busy atrium to try to make the isolation less frightening and that the children are often seen waving at passers by. I turned to look back again at the girl behind the glass, still smiling and waving and felt totally and completely floored by her. I paused still in shock then smiled and waved back, walking on with thoughts in my mind swimming.
When I think back to the big changes in my life, leaving home for university, relationship breakups and changing careers, at the time such change felt a little scary but my encounters at the hospital have put such matters crashing into perspective. This week I have met some true heroes of change, those younger than me who have had to adapt to challenges they haven’t chosen and in some cases even their own mortality. To soldier on in those circumstances, away from home, school and family, takes true grit and true guts. This was by far and away my nicest but toughest week on the job so far and I feel complete awe and admiration for the staff, volunteers and families at the RMCHC. They do the most amazing jobs in Britain.
So when you’re sitting down to your turkey, as I will be this year, please spare a little thought and thank you for the staff and volunteers in hospitals all across our country bringing a little christmas light to those children on the wards and behind the glass windows. And remember life is for a limited time only, so as you go about yours - smile and wave.
P.S. I have one more full day yet to go at this fantastic charity with a set of very exciting mystery visitors but given timing I will have to provide this last (epic) adventure by way of an update below.
P.P.S. One humungous bucket full of thanks to the utterly amazing staff at RMCHC for making my week truly incredible for baking nicest job biscuits on my first day and because each one of you made me feel so welcome and part of your team. Particular thanks to Aimee Loughney, one of life’s legends, for planning my week out so thoughtfully and being such great fun. I owe you big time.