Not home for the holidays: Five ways to help an inpatient family

Caitlin, who has been in the ICU for many holidays, gets a visit from her older brothers
Caitlin, in the ICU last Christmas, gets a visit from her older brothers, Daniel, left, and Matthew, right

If you know a child who’s in the hospital at this time of year, you may want to help make their holidays a little brighter but aren’t sure what to do. We turned to a few current and former members of the Boston Children’s Hospital Family Advisory Council to ask what they appreciated most.

#1: Don’t be afraid to reach out

“Some people are nervous about reaching out to families in the hospital because they think they’re disturbing you,” says Kouri Wright, mom of 14-year-old Timmy, who has been in and out of the hospital since birth. “But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Kids are still kids and need plenty of positive distractions.”

Wright says Timmy especially appreciates Facetime or Skype calls from his cousins, friends and hockey team. “Sometimes the whole hockey team gives him a quick Facetime call right before a practice, and he loves that.”

Katie Litterer, Family Partnerships coordinator at Boston Children’s, agrees. She’s  spent more than one holiday in the hospital with twin 10-year-old daughters Sophie and Maddie. “It’s always OK to reach out,” she says. “If we know you’re thinking about us, it will make us feel cared for and supported, even if we’re not in a place, emotionally, to respond or give you updates.”

Maddie and Sophie, who have been in the hospital many times during the holidays
Maddie, front, and Sophie, home for the holidays last year

Another way to reach out is with holiday cards and notes. If your child attends the same school or club as the child in the hospital, you can help coordinate card-making with the teacher or other parents. “One year, a group of kids from Caitlin’s school made holiday cards for her that we hung around the room,” says Sue McCarthy, mom of 16-year-old Caitlin. They too, have spent many a holiday in the hospital. “She really enjoyed looking at every single card and having us read them out loud to her.”

#2: Help create some holiday spirit

A little decorating can go a long way toward making a child feel like they’re not totally missing out on the holidays even though they’re in the hospital.

Litterer suggests making decorations for the child to hang in their room, or helping the child make their own decorations. “The child life team is wonderful. This dedicated team has lots of supplies and can help you coordinate,” she says. “If you’re not sure what’s allowed in the child’s room, check in with their parents or nurses first.”

Holiday foods can also help create a more festive spirit. Offer to bake holiday cookies or other holiday treats, just check first to make sure the child doesn’t have any food restrictions. Also, food items that don’t need to be stored in a refrigerator are best. If you know the family has a special holiday food or tradition they follow, you can help try to make that happen in the hospital.

If the family is spending Christmas Day or New Year’s Day in the hospital, McCarthy suggests bringing them a holiday meal. “It’s really nice to sit down as a family in the child’s room or Patient Entertainment Center with a home-cooked meal,” she says. “You can divide the cooking between a few people or order a meal from a local grocery store.”

Timmy, who has been in the ICU for many holidays, poses on stairs at home this year with his younger brother and sister and their dog
Timmy, right, with younger siblings Jackie and Joey, and Chewy the dog

#3. Help on the home front

Having a child is in the hospital can throw a family’s home life into disarray. Helping to relieve any part of this stress can be huge.

  • Bring meals to the family at home. “I really appreciated that my friend coordinated meals with other friends and family and then made a schedule I could share with my husband and two boys at home,” says McCarthy. She suggests making meals that can be frozen, so the family can enjoy them when they want.
  • Ask if you can help with small chores. Keeping up with bringing in the mail, watering plants, feeding or walking pets, or shoveling snow can be really helpful.
  • Offer to keep siblings busy. Wright says having a child in the hospital can be tough on siblings. “It really helps when someone offers to take them to a movie or event, helps them with homework, or gives them rides to school or activities.”
  • Provide a break for the parent in the hospital. “I loved it when someone would offer to stay with Caitlin for a bit so I could go home and have dinner with my husband and kids,” says McCarthy. “That was huge.”

#4. Provide support in the hospital

Small acts of kindness can go a long way to help families in the hospital. Here are some suggestions:

  • Gift cards. Parents say gift cards to local food establishments, coffee shops or gas stations can help cut down on expenses while in the hospital. Gift cards to online stores can also help parents who are in the hospital with holiday shopping.
  • Parking passes. You can call the parking office at the hospital at 617-355-6251 between 7 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. weekdays to purchase parking vouchers for parents of an inpatient child. The parent can then go to the parking office to pick up the passes.
  • A small gift for the child. “Timmy really loved Legos when he was little, and now he appreciates iTunes gift cards so he can download a few new songs,” says Wright. “Any kind of thing to keep them busy is helpful.”
Caitlin, who has been in the hospital for many holidays, poses with her family
Caitlin, center, at home with her family

#5. Ask the experts

“The nurses, social workers and child life specialists are all amazing,” says Wright. “They know everything about the hospital and are happy to offer ideas for how to make things better for the child and family. Just reach out and ask.” A child’s nurse can link a family with a social worker or child life specialist if they haven’t already come around to say “Hello.”

At Boston Children’s, we recognize our patients and their families are the experts on their health care experience. Our Family Partnerships program offers opportunities for patients and families to get involved.