One of the first things that struck me about the playroom was how hard it was to find. The winding corridors that lead me through the hospital are dark and narrow. So narrow that you cannot pass another person. Low ceilings and lack of natural light give the place an earie, labyrinth-like feel. The building had already been abandoned by the time the hospital moved into it, in the year 1879.
I often come across lost parents. Sometimes carrying a sick child. They meander through the confusing miss-match of different buildings. There are lots of stairs. Up and down, in and out I go as I find my way to the playroom. So many parents carry their children because the journey would be difficult or impossible with a buggy or wheelchair.
Many parents look tired and pale, scared even. There’s a palpable tension in the air when you know that the life or health of a young child is hanging in the balance.
I travel through the dark passageways to arrive at the playroom. I am struck by the bright airy atmosphere of both the décor and the staff. This is a designated “safe-zone”. Children play here without fear of doctors/nurses or any medical procedures. Play-specialists encourage and stimulate play to help relieve the daily stresses of hospital life.
Like the rest of the hospital the room was not purpose-built. A nineteenth century drawing-room with large bay-windows. The view from the windows is inner-city concrete.
In any other place, in any other circumstance, this room would be part of a museum. Using cheap IKEA furniture and a few licks of bright paint, it has been turned into a playroom. The nearest toilet is a good distance and is without nappy changing facilities. It’s so small it reminds me of an old phone box.
The playroom is the heart of a network that spreads throughout the whole hospital. The play-specialists know each child, their sensitives and their physical limitations. The birthday of no patient goes uncelebrated.
Seasons are recreated inside for children who cannot go outside. Dark corridors are brightened with hearts in February, shamrocks in March, Easter eggs in April and Christmas wreaths in December.
Inside the playroom, staff and volunteers like myself spend a lot of time organising toys, trying to maximise the little storage/play space available. A lot of thought goes into what to keep. Only toys of high safety standards that can withstand regular and rigorous cleaning are good enough.
A lot of thought goes into every detail. Children are carefully signed in and out of the playroom. Parent contact details are kept to hand in case a child becomes unsettled. Tired parents are encouraged to take a short break and have breakfast or shower while their children play.
Patients are not allowed in the hospital canteen. This presents a difficulty for the lone parent staying at the hospital with a sick child. Hospitalisation divides a family. Often one parent will stay at the hospital with their sick child while the other parent remains at home with the rest of the family. “Home” can be as close as the other side of Dublin or as far as the other end of the country.
Hospital life is claustrophobic, especially for young children. Every time I bring a child back to their ward the reality of the situation hits home. Bedside areas are cramped and stuffy. Toddlers crawl around the tiny floor space available.
Several children, sometimes of differing age ranges sleep in one room. There is little or no space for parents and siblings who come to visit. One mother slept in a chair squeezed beside the bed of her toddler, in an open ward. I was amazed that she could sleep. So much noise; nurses chatting, a child across the room watching telly, the phone at the nurse’s station ringing. No privacy, no peace.
No wonder that parents are overwhelmed and exhausted. Just when their children are at their most vulnerable and need them the most, parents are scraping together courage and energy under these conditions. They astound me, they never complain.
The real strength that parents and staff at this hospital draw from is the children. These young patients are astounding and resilient. Seeing a child recover with grace and good humour is an inspiration. I feel privileged to be part of this process. I am grateful to Children In Hospital Ireland, the charity who provided me with the necessary training and found me the this voluntary placement in Temple Street.
“Nothing we do for children is ever wasted” Garrison Keillor said. The staff and parents at Temple street hospital are shining examples of this philosophy.
This month Ireland is one step closer to a higher standard of hospital care for children. An Bord Pleanana have granted planning permission for the New National Children’s hospital at St James’s Hospital. Much consideration was given to the question of where to build this new facility. We must now move on from the question of where to the very overdue question of “When”?