Belfast Telegraph

Magic of Christmas brought to Northern Ireland Children's Hospital as medics stage panto

By Victoria O'Hara

Being at home for Christmas surrounded by loved ones is a special time of year but for many children in Northern Ireland that isn't possible.

Seriously ill children and their parents from across the country find themselves calling a hospital ward 'home' during the festive period.

While doctors try to get as many boys and girls as possible home for Christmas Day, there are those that sadly are not well enough to leave.

But the team behind the biggest children's hospital in Northern Ireland help to put a smile on the faces of the babies, young children and their families at Christmas time. And those doctors and nurses who treat the young patients at the Children's Hospital in the Royal Victoria Hospital have for many become part of an extended family offering hope and support during the darkest and toughest of days.

In the run-up to Christmas doctors and consultants swap their white coats and scrubs for festive outfits to create some festive cheer.

And the foyer into the hospital is transformed into a Santa's Grotto.

Julie Lewis, children's services manager at the hospital, explains: "We will try right up to Christmas Eve to be discharging as many children as we can - even if it is just to get home for Christmas Eve for Santa to come and back in Christmas Day or Boxing Day. Unfortunately we will have a proportion of children who will have to remain with us."

But those who are in hospital this time will not go without getting a visit from Santa.

And one of the annual highlights for the children is the pantomine written by the junior medical team and involves all levels of medical staff. This year was an X Factor theme with the foyer transformed into a stage for a song competition.

An excited audience was made up of children undergoing treatment including gruelling chemotherapy and radiotherapy sessions and some having to remain in isolation due to their fragile immune systems. But all had smiles on their faces.

Lisa Taylor from Ahoghill was with her nine-year-old daughter Molly who has been treated for a brain tumour since March.

"It is quite tough because I've two children at home but we have known for a while that we would be facing Christmas in hospital," she said. "If we do get home it will be a bonus."

Lisa added: "Molly is quite happy because Santa will come twice to her. So as long as she is happy it keeps us going."

Julie added: "People look forward to the Christmas pantomime, certainly the staff and the children who are regularly here at the hospital know it is coming and there is anticipation. They come early to get a seat and it is really just a morale boost.

"Winter is one of the busiest times here but we are a children's hospital so there has to be a bit of fun and light entertainment. It's great for the kids, great for the parents but also it is great for the staff."

Despite the pressure of working in a busy children's hospital the junior medical staff write the play and recruit the consultants.

"It is almost a rite of passage for junior medical staff to be involved," Julie added.

The performance that proved a winner with the children was Catherine Kennedy, a junior doctor from Draperstown who became Elsa from the big screen hit Frozen.

Dressed in the famous blue dress, she said: "It was just lovely to see the smiles on the faces of the children.

"Frozen was the biggest song of the year and it was just a real pleasure to get to sing it for them. There are so many who are going to spend a lot of time in hospital so it's just nice to be part of trying to help them smile."

'Everyone's spirits lifted'

Baby Tilly (18 weeks old) has kidney failure and has been in hospital for 16 weeks but will get home for Christmas.

Her mum Jolene Coyle from Fermanagh explained Tilly had been receiving treatment since she was born.

"It has been quite a tough time. The staff are just brilliant and go the extra mile. She is really looked after. Having the events with the staff you can see everyone's spirits lifted. We have been here so long it feels like you have just gone from summer to Christmas and you don't get out to do anything. So this brings the spirit of Christmas to you.

"We are getting home on Christmas Eve, which we are really looking forward to."

'It has been tough time'

Lisa Taylor from Ahoghill was with her nine-year-old daughter Molly who is battling a brain tumour.

Diagnosed on March 31, the little girl has spent months in hospital. Due to her treatment Molly had to be isolated but was allowed to come down and watch the panto - at a distance.

"She has had a number of surgeries and chemotherapy and radiotherapy," Lisa said. "It has been a very tough time. The staff have just been amazing.

"She is in isolation at the minute so it is hard - but great when we can get her out of the room ... the best medicine ever. That morning she was quite sick but when she came down to the panto she just perked up. What the staff do amazes me. It gives them a little bit of normality."

'We're all family here'

Carys Dowie who was born with a rare genetic condition called Cardio-Facio-Cutaneous - or CFC.

The little girl is only three-and-a-half but she has spent most of her life in the ward.

And due to her condition she only gets to spend a few hours at home at a time.

Her family, including her mum Louise, dad Paul and grandmother Mary from north Belfast, all help to care for her daily. But they say the team in the hospital have become their extended family.

Mary said: "It's unlikely she will get home this Christmas. She went home last Christmas for two hours and was able to go home the whole day the year before as she was a bit better. But she has spent more time in hospital in the Allan Ward.

"It is hard - it is more emotional at Christmas. Carys doesn't really know any difference but it is much harder for us. She has two sisters and a brother - Emer (13) and Connie and Brendan (11).

"Everybody just takes their days and nights and it has sort of become a way of life. You have to get in that mindframe. There are times when you feel dragged down but then you just have to push yourself back up. It is very important for Carys and the other children to get those few hours away from hospital but we have to do what is best for her by following what the doctors say. It is lovely in here at Christmas and all year round there are lovely girls and guys that come in and do nice things. We could never, ever thank the people for what they do, every single one of them.

"Everybody in here is her extended family - and ours."

'Staff are just brilliant'

Ellie has spent eight weeks in hospital and had to come in for surgery. Her mum Kerri Hannah from Newry said: "We just don't know but we have our fingers crossed that she can get home. The staff have just been brilliant and very supportive."

'A feeling of normality'

Brendan from Caledon, Co Tyrone, has been in the hospital for 12 weeks after being diagnosed with leukaemia in the middle of September.

His mum Doreen said: "It means a lot because we have been in here since September. It is good to have a panto as it is something to look forward to and gives you a feeling of doing something normal that others do at Christmas. We don't think we will get home for Christmas but we are always hoping."

'I've opened my presents'

Kevin Zhang (7) from Craigavon who was diagnosed with leukaemia has been in and out of hospital for the last year.

Kevin said: "We don't know if I will get home for Christmas because the plans keep changing, but possibly. I wanted a Playstation and a Manchester United mug. I've already received my presents which has been really good. The staff are very kind and helpful."

His mum Eve said: "We have been in hospital with Kevin over the last year but they treat us like family members".

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