Sunday 15 September 2019

Hospital heroes

Catherine O'Reilly and Patricia Highland are among a team of volunteers at Wexford General Hospital helping make a child's hospital stay as comfortable and worry-free as possible - for the youngster and the parents.

Children in Hospital Ireland volunteers Pat Highland and Catherine O’Reilly at Wexford General Hospital
Children in Hospital Ireland volunteers Pat Highland and Catherine O’Reilly at Wexford General Hospital

Maria Pepper

You'll find Patricia Highland and Catherine O'Reilly wearing unmissable bright red tee-shirts and big smiles as they make their way through the corridors of Wexford General Hospital.

Pat and Catherine are volunteers with Children in Hospital, an organisation which provides a play service to youngsters who find themselves as patients or in-patients in hospital.

Children in Hospital is currently recruiting new volunteers in County Wexford and will hold an information and interview evening on Tuesday, August 27, after which successful candidates will attend a training session on Saturday, September 7.

Volunteers must be over 18 years of age and have two to three hours a week to spare. All recruits undergo Garda vetting and a comprehensive training programme is provided, as well as ongoing support.

Hospitalisation is a stressful experience for children and parents and play helps to alleviate some of the trauma by introducing an element of normality and distraction in what can be a strange environment.

Helping children and families at a tense and often worrying time in their lives brings immeasurable rewards, according to Pat and Catherine who spend some time every week in the colourful playroom at St. Gabriel's Ward.

'The first thing we do when we arrive is to call to the outpatients and A&E departments to see if there are any little people waiting there', said Pat.

'When parents bring a child to A&E, there usually isn't time to think about taking a toy or a game along. We have a chat with the parent to get an estimate of the age and we bring down something age-appropriate to keep them amused.'

On arrival at the chldren's ward, the volunteers approach the parents of any young patients to explain what they do and invite them to the playroom where they set out toys, games and arts and crafts.

'We ask them if they would like to come down and rather than having organised play, we ask the children what they would like to do', said Catherine who has a Masters's degree in Childcare from the Wexford Campus of Carlow IT and is currently doing a Phd in Early Childhood Education at Trinity College.

'Sometimes they might like to race cars on the floor, so that is what we do. Parents can have a break and go and get a cup or coffee or make a phone call. Sometimes they stay', she said.

'This week, we had two families who were on holidays in Wexford. One family was from Italy and had no English and their little boy was admitted. The two children came down here and started painting. The dad sat down and he did some art as well', said Pat, a mother and grandmother and a former nurse and retired teacher.

'They were laughing, it was wonderful. They almost forgot where they were. It was such fun. That family were so grateful', she added.

'Out in the car park, the dad wound down the window of the car and thanked us again', said Catherine.

'The other family was from Dublin and their baby was admitted. The father was looking after the three-year old while the mother stayed with the baby. The child came to the playroom and stayed with us. He had great fun. He didn't want to go when the dad came to collect him', continued Pat.

'It shows that Wexford is a friendly place and it's good for our community', she said.

'The child can go home from hospital afterwards and have a good memory of the experience', said Catherine.

'Even if a parent is sitting here in the chair and we're playing with the child, you can see them having a rest', she said.

'A little boy from the childcare centre where I was working came into A&E and I brought him down a lego car. The next day, he was back in pre-school and all he could talk about was the toy'.

Another CHI volunteer Laura Blake said more volunteers are needed for the busy children's out-patient department as parents often have to bring all their children to the hospital if their appointment is outside school hours during the school term.

As well as activities in the playroom such as painting, colouring, jigsaws, reading and free play, the volunteers bring toys to the rooms of children who are confined to bed or in isolation.

'We often like to keep children company and organise bedside board games, play cards, read stories or just have a chat. It is always an absolute joy to see the look of happiness on children's faces when the volunteers visit the rooms on the ward', said Laura, who has been volunteering since 2004.

'Parents also thank us for giving them some precious time out to have a cup of tea, a shower or to slip down to the hospital shop or cafe, knowing that their child is happy and in safe hands while they are away.'

'It's the most incredibly rewarding work that anyone could do. There are very special moments when a child may give you a handmade' thank you' card and it is very precious moments like this that make volunteering wuith CHI so worthwhile.'

'It is lovely to go home in the evening knowing that you are making that special difference to children and their families during their hospital stay, alleviating some of the trauma young children may experience in the unfamiliar surroundings of a hospital environment', said Laura.

The playroom in St. Gabriel's is a bright, welcoming, well-equipped space with jungle and maritime themed murals on the walls, where shelves are filled with board games, books toys and where Practical Printers supplies sheets of paper with printed pictures to colour in.

The role of volunteer is ideal for someone who has an interest in supporting children and enjoys playing with them, according to Catherine.

'I wanted to give something back and I wanted something that would suit my set of skills', she said.

'I volunteered because I was so lucky. I so loved my working life that I wanted to back something. But it would suit younger or older people. You can pick the hours that suit you, there's a morning, afternoon and evening shift', explained Pat.

'I would absolutely recommend it. It's so rewarding. I'm blown away by the gratitude of the parents. You mightn't be feeling in great form but you come in here and spend some time with the children and it makes you feel good', she said.

'They are so good for you. You go home thinking that was fun.'

'People feel that they have to be qualified to do it but you don't. Everything you need to know is covered in the training'.

Catherine added that it's a wonderful service but 'it's a pity it's not here every day because they don't have enough volunteers'.

If you are interested in learning more about becoming a volunteer with Children in Hospital Ireland email telephone 01 2903510 or visit

New Ross Standard