Making Families Torn by Illness Whole Again

Monday, November 26, 2007

You don't often see clowns roaming hospital halls, but at Children's Hospital, they make rounds just as doctors do.

Two hovered near a nurses' station on a recent morning, one wearing a checked deerstalker, the other sporting a red nose, and both shuffling along in enormous shoes.

Dr. Baldy and Dr. Monocle are regulars, part of the hospital's attention not just to cutting-edge medicine, but to all the details that make up a normal childhood -- particularly laughing and playing -- even when illness interrupts. They and their fellow clown-team members from the Big Apple Circus are part of the hospital's philosophy of treating the "whole" child.

In fact, "whole" is a word that popped up often on a recent tour of the sprawling smoked-glass-and-steel building on Michigan Avenue. The hospital is there for the whole child, the whole family, the whole community.

No area child is ever turned away, regardless of whether a family can pay. And last year, the 283-bed facility spent $50 million on treatment for children whose families couldn't, according to Julie Hudtloff, manager of volunteer services.

Over the next several weeks, as The Washington Post runs its annual fundraising campaign to help cover the costs for patients who need Children's Hospital, we'll be taking you inside this medical center that is a world leader in pediatric care. We'll show you how it works and introduce you to patients and some of the dedicated men and women who treat them.

Patients come from more than 40 community hospitals in the Washington area. They arrive from up and down the East Coast, even from abroad. When every second counts, the sickest land on the hospital rooftop via SkyBear, a year-old helicopter service.

No sooner is the patient inside than the focus broadens from the child being treated to the "whole" family.

"A child may be hurt, but let's be honest. It's never just a child who's been injured," hospital spokeswoman Emily Dammeyer said.

Once Children's admits a child, the hospital draws family and friends into its embrace. Sleep sofas encourage parents or guardians to stay by the bedside of an ailing child 24-7. A concierge service mobilizes to supply out-of-town parents with anything from toothbrushes to restaurant tips.

Hope Shasha remembers that when she brought her teenage son, Justin, from Florida for brain surgery, they got more support than she'd ever dreamed of.

"We didn't know anyone in Washington," she said. "They had someone meet us at the airport. They arranged a hotel. Whatever we needed, they gave us."

In the outpatient primary care clinic, where doctors treat patients up to age 11, mothers and their children constitute a "whole" unit. The little one gets treatment, but so does mom, if she needs it.

In the hospital's new wing, which opened a week ago, "whole" families are as much a focus as the medicine. Most patient rooms are spacious and private, giving parents more room during what can be the most terrifying moments of their lives.

Bottom line: No matter how difficult the circumstances are for patients and their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, Children's spares no detail in making everyone involved feel welcome. And parents get the message.

"It was never depressing -- not depressing at all," said Prajakta Hate of Greenbelt, whose 8-year-old son, Mukul, spent two weeks at the hospital when he underwent surgery for a brain tumor last winter.

It's hard to put a price tag on all that Children's does. But needless to say, it does not come cheap. For decades, the community reached by Children's has been giving back to the hospital through The Washington Post's fundraising campaign.

With today's kickoff, we hope to raise $500,000 by Jan. 18.

How to Help

To donate, make a check or money order payable to Children's Hospital and mail it to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, MD 21297-1390. That's the address for the post office box of our bank, Chevy Chase. All funds go to Children's Hospital in Washington.

To contribute by phone using Visa or MasterCard, call 202-334-5100 and follow the instructions.

Everyone who donates will receive a thank-you note, and all gifts are tax-deductible, as allowed by law. Sometimes groups donate or co-workers give to the Children's campaign instead of exchanging holiday gifts or cards. We'll be acknowledging such groups in this column.

If you have foreign currency you'd like to get rid of, mail it to Children's Hospital Campaign, 1150 15th Street NW, Washington, DC 20071, and we'll get it to Asset Strategies International Inc. to convert it into U.S. funds.

Craig Wilton, general manager of US Express, will again be providing courier service to pick up group donations made by any office. If you need a pickup in the District, call 301-683-9009 and tell the operator that the account code is "ChildP."

Thank you.

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