Montreal Children's Hospital makes space for kids with sick siblings

Montreal Children's Hospital makes space for kids with sick siblings
Montreal Children's Hospital makes space for kids with sick siblings

“I go to see my little sister and then I go to the daycare,” Raphael says. “I play outside. I play doctor. I play chef. I play construction.”  Allen McInnis / Montreal Gazette

Jean Personna and his family have had to make countless trips from their home in Laval to the Montreal Children’s Hospital because their newest family member — 3-month-old Michaël — is having trouble breathing and needs constant medical supervision.

For brother Raphael, 5, those visits have become a lot more enjoyable thanks to a pilot project that gives him a place to play while his mother, Rachelle Toussaint, and father tend to Michaël. The Just for Kids (JFK) Foundation’s Sibling Park offers childcare while parents bond with their newborns in the neonatal intensive care unit.

“This is something that makes him happier when he goes to see his sister,” Personna said. “He’s always happy to see his sister, but he is especially happy because of the activities provided by the service.”

If not for the project, Personna said, “I would have to pay another person to take care of him while we go to the hospital. We wouldn’t have a choice.”

Raphael has a routine every time he goes to the Children’s with his family and he knows it well.

“I go to see my little sister and then I go to the daycare,” Raphael said. “I play outside. I play doctor. I play chef. I play construction.” 

Raphael said he enjoys his time playing at the hospital and, after a moment’s thought, concluded: “I think I like being a big brother.”

Raphael Personna, 5, plays piano in the daycare for siblings of sick kids at the Montreal Children’s Hospital Aug. 28, 2017.

The idea for the JFK Sibling Park got its start with Alana Geller, whose twins were born prematurely in 2014. The twins spent six weeks in the Children’s neonatal intensive care unit, and “I can tell you the care is second to none.”

Last year, one of Geller’s twins was operated on at St. Louis Children’s Hospital in St. Louis, Mo. Avi has cerebral palsy and was an in-patient for five days and outpatient for a month. During that time, Avi’s brother, Eli, was looked after at an on-site childcare facility.

“A hospital setting for anybody is difficult, but it is particularly difficult for young children,” Geller said. “When I came back, I started telling the Just for Kids Foundation about this program, and how wonderful it was for our family and how helpful it was, enabling us to focus on Avi, our son, who had just had a major surgery.”

Geller said JFK president Rochelle Silverman was immediately receptive to the idea. JFK worked with the hospital to get the pilot project off the ground quickly.

“It is a free service being offered to overwhelmed parents,” said Silverman, noting it was launched in mid-July. It is open afternoons and weekends, outside normal school and daycare hours “to focus on the often overlooked healthy siblings of these tiny patients.”

Parents have more time to bond with their hospitalized babies, she said, and they don’t have to take on the financial stress of childcare during an already stressful time, she explained. Plus the family gets to stay together.  

Some families, she noted, come into the city from afar, making the park all the more necessary. Along with games and toys, kids can get homework assistance and maintain routine in their lives, she said.

“To me, part of what is so important, is young children see their parents leaving them to go to the hospital and, as we know, hospitals can be a scary place,” Silverman said.  “These children, at least, get to come to the hospital with their parents.”

The next step for the pilot project is to raise enough funds to make the service a permanent fixture at the hospital. With that in mind, Geller and the JFK team are encouraging people to participate in and donate to the Stroll for Kids fundraiser. Geller has co-chaired the annual event for the last three years. A portion of the proceeds of the event, to be held the morning of Sept. 17 in Côte-St-Luc’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau Park, will go toward the JFK Sibling Park.

Stroll for Kids participants can register in advance and learn more about the walk by visiting strollforkids.com.

The walk is part of the JFK Foundation’s “A Breath for Life” campaign. This year, its aim is to raise $500,000 to purchase equipment for the Montreal Children’s neonatal intensive care unit and the respiratory medicine department. Part of that funding will also go toward the JFK Sibling Park.

AT A GLANCE

The Stroll for Kids takes place Sept. 17, 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Pierre Elliott Trudeau Park in Côte-St-Luc. Details: childrenfoundation.com

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