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MIA FREEDMAN: Some helpful things to know when you're in hospital with a sick child.

There are few things more frightening than being in hospital with a very sick child. If you are a parent, there is every chance it will happen to you at some stage and when it does, you will be unspeakably anxious, sleep deprived and utterly, utterly overwhelmed.

Having recently experienced a health scare with my youngest son that required us spending more than a week at the Sydney Children’s Hospital (he’s recovering well and it turned out to be okay), I found myself constantly grappling with my emotions, the reactions of other people, logistics, mundane practicalities and the daunting mountain of fear and information to be climbed every day.

Every person has a different experience in hospital with their child and of course, I can’t possibly know what anyone else is going through or how they might feel. But here are a few things that may or may not be a little bit helpful… things I had no idea would happen.

YOU WILL BE INCREDIBLY BUSY

Between tests and meals and talking to doctors and replying to messages and making phone calls to loved ones and helping the nurses to care for your child and keeping them entertained and comforting them, there is astonishingly little downtime when you’re in hospital. Depending on how sick your child is, of course, there will be far less time to, say, read a book, than you expect.

There will be loads for your child to do, however, if they feel up to it. Being in a children’s hospital is a little like living for a brief time inside an episode of Playschool – except with needles.  During our time at the Sydney Children’s hospital there were clown doctors, Wonderwoman and Superman came one time with early Christmas presents, play therapists, volunteers with hospital-approved dogs to pat, music therapists, a school, an in-house radio station and games room.

At one point when I was going to get a sandwich I passed four life-sized R2D2 robots rolling down the corridors with their Star Wars fan owners, come for a visit. So much thought goes into keeping kids’ spirits up and you can see their eyes light up, cutting  through pain, discomfort and even fear.

sick child hospital advice
There's a surprising amount of things going on in a children's hospital, including clown doctors.
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YOU WILL BECOME A GOLDFISH

With the levels of stress you're under and the sleep deprivation on top, the first casualty is your short term memory. And your concentration span is immediately shot. I found myself re-introducing myself to the other mothers in our room repeatedly. "I'm so sorry, I've forgotten your name," I'd say, 20 minutes after we'd met. "That's OK, I've forgotten yours too," the other mother would reply and we'd re-introduce ourselves only to repeat the process an hour later. This is why it's so important whenever possible to have another adult with you when you're speaking to your child's doctor. You really need two sets of ears to retain information.

YOU WILL NEED FOOD

Not a newsflash: hospital food is terrible. This is ironic because sick people need to eat healthy food. And people taking care of sick people need to keep their own strength up. People will bring you and your sick child lots of treats. Chocolate and muffins and biscuits and banana bread and lollies. It's what we associate with trying to cheer someone up. And it's delicious. But what you and your child really need is actual meals. Fresh food - bought or home-cooked - that you can eat for lunch and dinner. Tell them to drop them on your doorstep at home and a relative can bring them when they visit or to drop them off at the hospital.

YOU WILL FEEL UTTERLY OVERWHELMED BY COMMUNICATION

Before smartphones, if someone wanted to see how you were going, they would call the hospital and leave a message with someone on the front desk in your ward. That message would be relayed to you at some stage and you would nod and immediately forget about it. Not anymore. Your phone will ping constantly with concerned friends, family, workmates, parents from your child's school... it's endless. If you're in hospital for more than a day or so, word will spread and you'll be inundated with concerned texts and even phone calls.

Everyone means well but it's overwhelming at a time when you're already overwhelmed with worry and stress. Updating the world via Facebook is a last resort because do you really need your ex brother in law and that friend from primary school to know the intimate details of your child's condition? Group emails and group texts can be burdensome - everyone will hit 'reply all' and it turns into a mess. A suggestion: use Whatsapp. Get your nearest and dearest to download this app if they're not already using it and create a Whatsapp group for close family and friends. Call it 'updates' and use it to keep everyone updated at intervals that suit you.

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LITTLE HOME COMFORTS MAKE A BIG DIFFERENCE

There's every chance that your trip to the children's hospital may be made in the middle of the night or in a rush and you won't have anything with you but your phone. When you do get the chance to dash home - or someone can bring you some supplies - here are some of the things that can make your time in hospital a little better: your own pillow; a cuddly toy your child loves (even if they're a tween, it's amazing how they regress); device rechargers, preferably with long cords; a nice blanket or throw for your child's bed (makes a hospital bed feel so much more cosy); their favourite breakfast cereal (if they're eating normally) and any other snacks they and you like to eat; toothbrushes and toothpaste; your own teacup if you're a big tea drinker and don't like drinking out of styrofoam (this was crucial for me).

YOU WILL BECOME AN IMMEDIATE EXPERT IN VERY SPECIFIC MEDICAL TERMINOLOGY

In hospital kitchens and corridors, while waiting for tests and in wards, I found myself engaged in detailed discussions with other parents about our children's medical conditions, all of us speaking quite fluently in the language of health professionals. It's amazing how much and how fast your brain can learn new things in a time of crisis. Be careful of Googling though. Not all search results are equal and just because something is near the top, that doesn't mean you should necessarily believe it. It can be hard for non-professionals to discern what online information is credible. Ask your doctor where to look if you want to know more.

YOU WILL MEET ANGELS WALKING ON EARTH

They are called nurses. They will tend to your child with the utmost care and concern and good humour and kindness. Such kindness. Through days and nights, when your child is distressed and bored and unco-operative and sometimes even rude, these magnificent professionals will keep your family afloat. There aren't enough thanks in the world. And they should definitely DEFINITELY be paid more.

YOU WILL FEEL INCREDIBLY HUMBLED

Children's hospitals are frightening places. No matter how grim your situation, there will be families doing it tougher. Celebrate every improvement in your child's condition, no matter how incremental because there will always be someone grappling with terrible news. You will also be humbled by the kindness shown to you and your child by friends, acquaintances, colleagues and strangers. I had one woman just squeeze my shoulder as I waited in line to get a cup of tea at the cafe with my son in his wheelchair. Clearly I looked as shattered as I felt. And her kindness made me weep in a good way. People are good.

To everyone who works at the Sydney Children's hospital and all children's hospitals, you are amazing. And to all the worried parents, hang in there, you're not alone.

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