The playroom in Temple Street hospital: children play here without fear
A volunteer’s perspective
Only toys that meet high safety standards are allowed in the hospital playroom. Photograph: iStockphoto
One of the first things that strikes me about the playroom is how hard it is to find. The winding corridors that lead me through the hospital are dark and narrow. So narrow that you cannot pass another person. Low ceilings and lack of natural light give the place an eerie, labyrinth-like feel. The building had already been abandoned by the time the hospital moved into it, in 1879.
I often come across lost parents. Sometimes carrying a sick child. They meander through the confusing mis-match of different buildings. There are lots of stairs. Up and down, in and out I go as I find my way to the playroom. So many parents carry their children because the journey would be difficult or impossible with a buggy or wheelchair.
Many parents look tired and pale, scared even. There’s a palpable tension in the air when you know that the life or health of a young child is hanging in the balance.
I travel through the dark passageways to arrive at the playroom and am struck by the bright airy atmosphere of both the decor and the staff. This is a designated “safe-zone”. Children play here without fear of doctors/nurses or any medical procedures. Play specialists encourage and stimulate play to help relieve the daily stresses of hospital life.
Like the rest of the hospital, the room was not purpose-built. It is a 19th century drawing-room with large bay windows. The view from the windows is inner-city concrete.
In any other place, in any other circumstance, this room would be part of a museum. Using Ikea furniture and a few licks of bright paint, it has been turned into a playroom. The nearest toilet is a good distance away and is without nappy-changing facilities.
Seasons are recreated inside for children who cannot go outside. Dark corridors are brightened with hearts in February, shamrocks in March, Easter eggs in April and Christmas wreaths in December.
Inside the playroom, staff and volunteers like myself spend a lot of time organising toys, trying to maximise the little storage/play space available. A lot of thought goes into what to keep. Only toys of high safety standards that can withstand regular and rigorous cleaning are good enough.
A lot of thought goes into every detail. Children are carefully signed in and out of the playroom. Parent contact details are kept to hand in case a child becomes unsettled. Tired parents are encouraged to take a short break and have breakfast or shower while their children play.
Patients are not allowed in the hospital canteen. This presents a difficulty for the lone parent staying at the hospital with a sick child. Hospitalisation divides a family. Often one parent will stay at the hospital with their sick child while the other parent remains at home with the rest of the family.
“Home” can be as close as the other side of Dublin or as far as the other end of the country.
Hospital life is claustrophobic, especially for young children. Every time I bring a child back to their ward, the reality of the situation hits home. Bedside areas are cramped and stuffy. Toddlers crawl around the tiny floor space available.
No space for parents
It’s no wonder that parents are overwhelmed and exhausted. Just when their children are at their most vulnerable and need them the most, parents are scraping together courage and energy under these conditions. They astound me; they never complain.
The real strength that parents and staff at this hospital draw from is the children. These young patients are astounding and resilient. Seeing a child recover with grace and good humour is an inspiration. I feel privileged to be part of this process.
“Nothing we do for children is ever wasted,” says American author Garrison Keillor. The staff and parents at Temple Street hospital are shining examples of this philosophy.
This month, Ireland is one step closer to a higher standard of hospital care for children. An Bord Pleanála has granted planning permission for the new national children’s hospital at St James’s Hospital, Dublin.
Much consideration was given to the question of where to build this new facility. We must now move on from the question of where to the overdue question . . . when?
Joyce Rubotham has volunteered at the playroom for two years. She is director of the charity Children In Hospital Ireland, which organises play schemes in hospitals with volunteers.