There are the hospital visits you expect—a planned surgery, for example. And then there are the visits you don’t expect—such as when you have to rush your baby, who was born with a congenital heart defect, to the emergency room just days before Christmas.
Carly McClure’s daughter, Joanna, spent last Christmas in the hospital. She’ll also spend this Christmas in the hospital. In fact, McClure says, she has spent every major holiday in the hospital since she was born 17 months ago. But last year’s unexpected stay was among the most difficult.
“That admission was really hard on us because we weren’t expecting it,” McClure says. “And I just didn’t have the capacity to think about Christmas.”
Luckily, though, people around her did. From the efforts of the hospital staff at Children’s National Hospital in Washington D.C., where Joanna was cared for, to their friends and family, Christmas still managed to arrive. Gifts were delivered. Lights were strung up in the room. Food was brought in. Cookies were consumed.
“They were able to bring us hope,” McClure says.
Families with children who are enduring long or frequent hospital stays always need support, but especially around the holidays and especially if, like the McClures, they have other children to care for. Here are a few ways to help support parents of hospitalised children this holiday season:
Run their holiday errands
A family in the midst of a medical crisis is likely to significantly pare back how many holiday extras they’ll be doing, but they’ve likely got at least a few errands that are still waiting to be done. A last-minute run to the post office to send a package, those ingredients for the sugar cookies they make every year, the wrapping paper and gift tags they didn’t have a chance to buy yet. Ask them if you can do some of their decorating, their baking and their general running around so they can stay where they’re needed most—with their child.
Wrap their gifts
If you just dropped off a couple of rolls of wrapping paper, stay for a bit and wrap their gifts. It is among the last things any physically and emotionally exhausted parent wants to do. To have that chore out of the way means they get to spend that time squeezing in a nap or a shower between hospital visits.
Drop off food at home and at the hospital
If the parents have other children, they are likely splitting their time between home and the hospital. The parent and kids at home need meals and the parent at the hospital needs meals. Last year, McClure says she went a week without eating a real meal until an organisation donated a large holiday meal for patients and their families at the hospital. And now, a friend regularly drops off meals for her to be stored in the hospital’s “family refrigerator” so that a few times a week, she has an easy dinner option.
Create some magic
Bring in holiday lights to string around the hospital room. Drop off a few new books. Plate up some cookies and carrots to set out in the room (or the nurse’s station, depending on the rules) for Santa and the reindeer. Send the parent a playlist of holiday music to play during the day. Find little touches that can bring the holiday spirit into the hospital room in a way that is safe for kids who are sick or recovering.
Check in, but give some space
This time of year is often time we spend with loved ones. But it’s also cold and flu season. So for parents of children with compromised immune systems, it can be dangerous to risk getting sick themselves. For now, McClure says she has to limit contact with her other three children, ages 7, 5 and 3, to avoid getting sick. And it also means that Joanna can’t have visitors.
“Having anyone come try to sit with me is tough,” McClure says. “And I don’t have the time to be away from Joanna because she is so critical, so (having visitors) ends up being sometimes draining.”
Instead, McClure says, the regular text message check-ins she gets from friends are her lifeline to the outside world.
“That’s important because it’s very isolating here,” she says. “The messages remind me that I’m not alone in the greater scheme of things and eventually, we will go home and will resume life.”