A week in my . . . hospital school ‘It helps to remember the thousands of children whose lives are transformed for the better’

Aoife O’Connor is the activity centre manager and on the extended leadership team of the Children’s Hospital School at Great Ormond Street and University College Hospital London

The children who attend the activity centre are inpatients and outpatients of the hospital, as well as their siblings, and range in age from birth to 19 years.

During school term time, the main users of the activity centre are nursery and reception age, which equate to toddlers and junior infants in Ireland.

Children from senior infants age upwards attend the school which is adjacent to the activity centre and is a registered examination centre.

Outpatients and siblings of any age can also use the activity centre as a recreational space; it includes the classroom space, an outdoor area for play, a den for teenagers and a sensory room.


Artistic activities

It is half-term so I am working closely with Go Create! – the arts programme that organises all the creative residencies and workshops at the hospital – to create the first family arts week to take place at Great Ormond Street Hospital.

We have a fantastic programme of artistic, fun and educational activities for the children, incorporating all our favourite workshop providers.

Today there’s a visit from Freya, a visual artist who does inky-insect drawing with the children and young people, and Liz, the art teacher from the hospital school, who is making hats with the children.

During term holidays, volunteers from Morgan Stanley come in to help us. At the beginning of the week, I give the volunteers an induction course in fire, health and safety and child protection. All our volunteers are a fantastic addition to the centre and a great help to us.

We are a small team working with children of all ages, from babies right up to teenagers. It’s a drop-in service and many of the children are seriously ill, and this brings any number of challenges.

We don’t know the children as well as we would in a regular school, but we ask as many questions as we can to ensure that the child’s visit is as enjoyable and as beneficial as possible.

As the hospital treats such rare and complex conditions, even something as simple as playdough can make some of the children very sick indeed. We have a register on entry to the activity centre which requires that such details are filled out when the child arrives.

I am co-ordinator of the Readwell book scheme at the hospital, so I organise the collection and delivery of the book trolley to the various wards.

Annual nationwide Readathons raise money that allows us to receive 150 new books every six weeks – they are brand new and can be borrowed or kept by the children.

The Readwell programme also provides us with a storyteller every half-term. The scheme is becoming more widely available across the UK.

I need to co-ordinate visits for five siblings of patients whose parents are attending a focus group in the hospital. Siblings may come to us because parents need time alone to discuss the implications of their child’s illness or because they may have no one to look after the sibling while their other child is in hospital.

Many of our families come from outside London, so it’s important for us to provide support and activities for siblings.

Because we often deal with such young children, who cannot express their needs as well as an older child, we ask their parents to fill in a form to tell us their likes, dislikes, what makes them scared and so on.

This evening I will meet the head of volunteer services and the two volunteer co-ordinators who run the Saturday Club in the activity centre, which I also manage; it runs every week from 1pm to 5pm.

Dr Wonderpants workshops

I help with the workshops. Today we have visiting artists from The National Portrait Gallery, Darcy Turner’s wire-sculpture workshop and a dance workshop.

A lot of my day involves answering inquiries on the phone and via email. I respond to people dropping in asking questions about the timetable at the activity centre. It could be parents, play therapists or nursing staff making inquiries.

Because it’s Family Arts Week and we are taking photos, I need to ensure that parents fill in consent forms so that we have permission for photos to be used on our website and on our Twitter feed. It’s great for us to be able to share photos of our work to promote the activity centre and let families know about the service and activities we offer.

I settle in any children who are upset and meet parents to discuss plans for the time they will be here.

Today there’s the weekly visit from the Pat (Pets as Therapy) dogs. All external groups visiting the wards must touch base with me in the activity centre. The dogs are allocated on request to certain children on the wards and there are some wards, such as the cardiac high-dependency ward, to which they cannot go. Medical staff guide me on that.

On Tuesdays the Giggle Doctors come in for four and a half hours. This is a group of professional performers including magicians, singers and entertainers who are highly specialised in working in a hospital environment.

These visits are supported by the Theodora Trust. They have names like Dr Wonderpants and Dr Bananas, and they offer fun and humour in what can often be a very serious environment.

When a child dies

This morning we had some sad news; a child who we have been working with has died. One of the play workers came to give us the news. This week has not been a good week as it’s the second child we have lost.

This morning I’ll need to let those who have worked with the child know of their death. It is always a difficult phone call to make. It’s very, very sad. It is felt strongly by the activity centre and school staff who have worked closely with the child on the ward.

Bereavement is never an easy thing. Sometimes we are prepared for it and sometimes, no matter how prepared we are, it still comes as a shock. There are structures in place, such as Care First counselling service, to help staff deal with the death of a child and, as a team, we are also very supportive of each other.

One of my responsibilities is to make sure our policies are up to date. We have adopted both the NHS policies of the hospital and the Department of Education policies of the Borough of Camden to compile policies for our own school and activity centre.

We had an inspection by Ofsted (the government schools inspectorate body in the UK) in February and we were delighted to receive an “Outstanding” rating in all areas.

Following a rigorous clean, which needs to be done daily, we lock up for the night. It’s been an incredibly hard day, but on days like this it helps to remember the thousands of children whose lives are transformed for the better at Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Social worker supports

This morning I worked with one of the translators and a member of the social-work team to help a family who speak no English. It is part of my job to support parents (including those of international patients) and to help them understand what provision is available to them. For example, siblings of inpatients can attend school in London. We enjoy good relations with surrounding schools and are here to support parents, children and young people.

This morning I need to meet the fire office to discuss fire-prevention measures, and the infection-control team about maintenance of infection-control measures in the activity centre.

Today I had two meetings with potential volunteers for the activity centre. There are more than 800 volunteers at the hospital and it’s a long process – only the most suitable candidates are chosen and they must be committed to providing four hours each week.

In between the various jobs and calls, I talk to parents and children and join in the activities and workshops that today include Breakin’ Convention, producers of the critically acclaimed International Festival of Hip-Hop Dance Theatre at Sadler’s Wells, and The Rig, a structural interactive installation combining percussion, creativity, musical exploration, visual stimulation, learning and adventure.

Policies and procedures

Today I am working on our child-protection policies and procedures. I am joint health and safety lead for the school and the activity centre, and one of the designated child-protection people in the school and activity centre.

I have a meeting with the maxillofacial/ dental department regarding a presentation to the dental nursing team the following week.

It is my job to make sure that as many of the professionals in the hospital are aware of the activity centre and what we do here, so that families can benefit from our services.

As we wind down in the afternoon children free-flow play between the new garden in the activity centre, and the various arts and crafts available to them. It’s a buzzing atmosphere filled with laughter.

Some serious cleaning and reorganisation needs to take place today as school will open as usual on Monday. A team of 33 will be back after their half-term holiday ready to teach at the bedside and the main schoolroom.

Ninety-six children and young people used our service this week. Family Arts Week could well become an annual event.

See gosh.nhs.uk/

Out of hours: I truly love London I spend my spare time hanging out with my friends and my husband. We enjoy going out for meals around Crouch End where we live and where I met my husband four years ago at the local comedy club.

We got married in December in Ireland so we spent a lot of the end of last year planning the wedding and flying back to Ireland to ensure everything went according to plan.

Although I miss my family and the intimacy of Dublin, I truly love London.

It is such a brilliant place to live as there is always so much going on and so many amazing museums, galleries and theatres to visit. Sundays are usually spent reading the papers and having lunch somewhere local or walking around Alexandra Place, Highgate or Hampstead Heath.