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You've got mail: After months of surgery NI boy Blake lifts spirits of fellow patient by becoming pen-pal

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Blake McCaughey in the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children

Blake McCaughey in the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children

Blake with mum Christine

Blake with mum Christine

A member of the hospital staff helps Blake with his letter

A member of the hospital staff helps Blake with his letter

Blake's letter

Blake's letter

Patient Joy Thompson reads what he’s written

Patient Joy Thompson reads what he’s written

Blake McCaughey in the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children

Meet the young and old Northern Ireland pen-pals keeping each other company and raising smiles during their often lonely hospital stay.

The Rainbow Friends scheme allows patients at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children to improve their communication and writing skills, and battle loneliness, by writing letters to elderly patients while hospital visits have been restricted due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Through the Trust's play therapists and patient and client experience teams, young patients send a letter outlining their hopes and aspirations to elderly patients, who are encouraged to reply.

And it has been proving emotional for those receiving the letters.

Blake McCaughey (12) from Tandragee, Co Armagh, has been in hospital for the last 14 months, while his mother Christine has been at his bedside throughout.

Christine explained that Blake, who is a pupil at Lurgan's Ceara School, suffers from two different chromosome deletions and has been tube-fed and restricted to a wheelchair since he was 16 months-old.

However, in May 2019 Blake was diagnosed with food poisoning and spent the next seven months in Craigavon Area Hospital before being transferred to the Belfast hospital.

The food poisoning prevented Blake's bowel and stomach from functioning properly, caused a dramatic loss in weight, malnourishment, a drop in his heart rate and blood pressure, and the inability to control his body temperature.

Christine said the last 14 months have been a "long road" and the coronavirus emergency just made things worse as they spent five weeks of lockdown restricted to the hospital ward.

Being unable to see Blake's sister Pixie (9) and his dad Andrew was particularly tough for the family but Christine praised the staff at the Royal.

"If we needed clean clothes I washed them in the sink and the nurses brought my stuff home and they washed it," she said. "They brought us in food too, because there was nowhere to buy anything.

"The staff are absolutely fantastic and they have gone above and beyond for us.

"Blake needed surgery in the middle of it all. Anybody that knows Blake will know that I don't get too far without him so they had to give him a mild sedative to get him up to theatre and then they sedated him.

"Blake has had five surgeries since he came to Belfast and each one is as hard as the next but it's even harder when you can't hold their hand as they go to sleep."

The Rainbow Friends initiative has been a welcome distraction for Blake and his mum with Trust staff coming together to help write the letter and provide a bit of interaction.

"The play specialist would come in and sit down and he just thinks it's great that everybody gets together to play games and stuff," Christine explained.

"He would have a learning difficulty but he has no brain damage so he's very clued in and he knows what's going on.

"We explained to him what he was going to be doing by writing to other people who don't have any visitors but he was asking why they didn't have their mummy and daddy."

The Belfast Trust shared a heartwarming video on social media showing Blake writing the letter to an emotional Joy Thompson who received it.

"When he saw the video of the woman getting the letter he said, 'mummy, I just want to give her a hug'," Christine said.

"It was very special. It passes the day too because in the hospital you're thinking about what to do.

"This was a wee bit of a challenge for him to think about what he wanted to tell her."

The Rainbow Friends scheme was the brainchild of patient client and experience facilitator Barry Murtagh (44), whose daughters - Katharine (9) and Mairead (6) - came up with the name of the initiative.

Barry explained that due to hospital visiting restrictions, human contact was severely limited and he felt Rainbow Friends would provide a way of tackling that, while helping to improve communication and writing skills in young patients.

"The Trust was very much aware that patients are missing their loved ones so the project was aimed at opening up communication across the children and adult settings in the form of letters," Barry said.

"It was really to bring a smile to everyone's faces with the communication across the different generations. We work in partnership with the play specialist team and they were involved in promoting creative writing skills and encouraging children to tell their stories of their hopes and aspirations for the future.

"They talk about how they're getting on in hospital, their hobbies and their loved ones."

Barry added that it has created a lot of positivity in the Trust.

"The reaction we're getting from some of the patients who receive letters is brilliant," he said. "Some of them get quite emotional when they get a letter but it's certainly bringing a smile to their faces and they're very keen to reply to the children."

Belfast Telegraph