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mum and child in hospital

What Christmas in hospital is like for oncology families

Spending any holiday in hospital is tough. Learn how our Family Wellbeing Coordinators are there to support families with whatever they need.

We caught up with Jess, our Family Wellbeing Coordinator based at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead (Sydney), to discuss what it is like for families staying in the hospital over the holiday period and how the Redkite Family Wellbeing and Transition Program helps to lighten the load.

1. What is the Family Wellbeing and Transition Program?

Through the Family Wellbeing and Transition Program, Redkite can offer support to families the moment they step onto the oncology ward.  The purpose of the program is to improve the wellbeing of oncology families during their hospital stay and to connect them with the information and services they may need.

2. What is it like for families staying in hospital over the holidays?

I work four days a week on the ward and am the go-to person for everything wellbeing-related. I coordinate the volunteers and all the activities for the children on the ward as well as link families to Redkite support services they might not have known about.  An important part of my role is to give families the space to feel whatever it is that they are feeling. This is especially important around the holiday period when emotions can be heightened.

3. How many families do you look after on the oncology ward?

There are 22 beds in the ward, plus the families that are out-patients, that come into the clinic for treatment and then head home. I also look after the New Caledonian families that always need a little bit of support.

4. What is it like for families in the hospital over the holiday period?

It’s difficult enough being in the hospital with your child, but when there’s a huge occasion like their birthday, a major holiday, or a celebration, it makes it a little bit harder. It’s very tough for families which is why we do all we can to lift their spirits and help them celebrate in their own unique way.

“We made Christmas special by decorating his hospital room, having a tree and playing Christmas carols. Our extended family took turns to visit us throughout the day because we couldn’t all fit in the room at once! But we were able to enjoy a slightly different Christmas dinner together and exchange gifts.”
– Kim, parent

5. What are some of thing you do to brighten the days?

The hospital is always decorated really beautifully. Angelica who is the Child Life Therapist at Westmead does a wonderful job making the oncology clinic at the hospital a little bit lighter and more fun for everybody. They have a huge tree at Christmas time, along with presents. There was a giant egg at Easter, and they gave a few kids sticks to break this giant chocolate egg. It was amazing.

I also do up the family room and kitchen, which is kind of our Redkite room on the oncology ward. I’ll put up decorations and a mini tree, and fill the kitchen with Christmas snacks and nice food. We do our best to make it a little bit more comforting, I guess.  We don’t ignore that it is a difficult time for families. We acknowledge the holidays and do our best to make the kids smile and have fun during these times.

6. What is it like for families who aren’t from Australia?

We have a lot of French-speaking New Caledonian families at Westmead because there are no adequate treatment facilities where they are from.  Obviously, Christmas drives home the fact that they’re in a different country surrounded by people who don’t speak their language, and their child is receiving really intense treatment. 

So last year I did up little packages of French food, and then I got a few companies like France at Home to donate cured French meats, like saucissons and different foie gras and things like that. The owner Jean-Marc cures his meats and donated different foods to us. He said that one Christmas when he was a child, he was in hospital by himself, and it was awful, so he’s super empathetic and wants to make it better for our French-speaking families any way he can.

The families really loved the food packages and within a day all the French meats and cheeses were gone. This year, with COVID restrictions lifted, we’re hoping to hold a Christmas dinner with all the New Caledonian families, not just the oncology ones, and give out presents to the kids.

“Redkite has been so important to us… it’s the first time we have experienced this kind of help before, even at home in New Caledonia we never had help like this.”

Marie, Lencia’s Mum on her experience with Redkite.

7. What activities do you run for the children?

We do a lot of painting and drawing and craft-type activities. A few weeks ago a volunteer came in and did face painting on the ward and in the oncology clinic which was awesome and a big hit with the kids. We did cake decorating for Halloween, and we make cards and ornaments for their parents in December.

A lot of the kids are too sick to leave their beds. If they’re feeling well, they come in with their IV pole. It’s really sweet, they sit in the family room and do their crafts. Or if they’re too unwell but they show interest, then I take an activity to them in their room. But the offer is always there for them to join us in the family room just to get them out of their rooms,  reset their mental space and get them focused on something else that isn’t the four walls around them. It also gives the parent or carer a little bit of a break as well.

8. Are their activities for the carers?

We have a reflexologist who comes in once a month and does massages which are nice, especially around Christmas time. We had our beauty therapist who does facials and pampering. She was an ex-nurse, and so really understand what the families were going through.

9. Do you think these activities lighten the load around the holiday period?

Yeah, the children get excited and it takes their mind off chemo and off all the terrible side-effects that come with that, and off not being with their siblings or their grandparents or their family around the holidays. It’s also nice for the kids to make something for their parents when the parents perhaps haven’t had time or space to even think about cards or ornaments yet.

Last year when I put out the Father’s Day gifts, a mum said that she was so grateful for that because she hadn’t organized anything for her partner and her sick child was asking what he was going to give dad for Father’s Day. So the little one came and chose his gift to give dad.

“The heart of Christmas is often simple activities. These are the things that children enjoy and remember.”
– Helen, Redkite social worker

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