‘We never know how long they’ll be with us’: Thai project brings smiles to chronically ill children in hospitals
BANGKOK: Jidapa Pinitpongskul, then 11 years old, thought the hospital was scary. She wished she had had a friend there with her, someone who could have made the experience less lonely and daunting.
“If there had been someone to play with me or ask me ‘How are you? Was it painful, sweetheart? Are you all right?’, it’d have felt so good,” she said.
Jidapa is 53 now. Still, the loneliness and pain she experienced as a kid in a Bangkok hospital remains crystal clear in her memory. She was always an unhealthy child and had to undergo an operation at the age of 11. Her mother would drop her off at the hospital alone for subsequent therapy sessions.
“I felt like a sick kid who was left alone because nobody was there to look after me.”
Years of unpleasant hospital experience made Jidapa understand how children feel when their lives revolve around illnesses and medical treatments instead of quality time with family and friends. It also motivated her to join a volunteer programme called Happy Hospital, which strives to bring smiles to young patients in Thai hospitals.
It is an initiative of the Mirror Foundation – a non-governmental organisation that has advocated social development in Thailand since 1991. The programme operates on a voluntary basis and partners with eight hospitals in Bangkok and its vicinity.
“Our first goal is to create happiness and ease suffering,” said Jamjuree Saesue, who heads the project.
For more than a decade, the 34-year-old has trained a number of volunteers to interact with young patients in local hospitals in order to ease their pain and create moments of happiness that every child deserves.
According to Jamjuree, a number of children suffer chronic diseases that require lengthy treatments such as leukaemia, cancer and diseases related to the heart and bones. Many of them have to drop out of school, leave the comfort of their homes and spend months in the hospital, where they are forced to undergo painful treatments such as chemotherapy, surgeries and blood tests.
“When they see a stranger, some kids would burst into tears because they’re afraid the person is a doctor or a nurse who comes to take their blood, medicate them or do something painful to them,” Jamjuree said.
“So, volunteers have to explain we are there to play and that we aren’t going to hurt them, something like ‘I’m not going to take your blood or give you medications. Don’t be afraid.’"
TOUGH TIMES AMID THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
The Happy Hospital project brings volunteers to visit young patients in different hospitals once a week. For one to two hours, they work with nurses to organise art and craft activities for the children to help them relax and develop their skills. Participants come from a variety of backgrounds, from university students to flight attendants, dentists and retirees.
“For children in hospitals, their chances of experiencing the outside world are limited. So, I want to add happiness into their lives and ease their suffering,” Jidapa said.
“We never know how long they’ll be with us.”
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has suspended the hospital visits since January this year.
Its economic repercussions also have a significant impact on parents of many young patients. Prolonged hospitalisation and lengthy medical treatments already mean expensive medical bills. Some parents had to quit their jobs in order to look after their sick children.
“In terms of medical treatment, if the case is not urgent, it will be postponed. As for the financial situation, things have become more difficult for some families,” said Jamjuree.
The National Statistical Office of Thailand (NSO) reported 37.58 million people were employed in the first quarter of 2021 while some 760,000 others were without jobs.
Based on its data, the number of employed labour dropped by 710,000 from the previous quarter last year. Moreover, more than 4 million employees were in a vulnerable situation, where their working hours and income were cut.
“This could be a result of businesses trying to stay afloat without laying off employees but reducing their working hours instead,” NSO said in a report last month. “If the economy recovers slowly and causes many businesses to shut, this group of people could slip into unemployment.”
To ease financial burdens for parents, the Happy Hospital project also assists vulnerable families that struggle to cover their children’s medical bills at its partner hospitals, transportation costs between their houses and the hospitals as well as career support for parents with limited opportunities.
A DREAM COME TRUE
Early this year, the project expanded its work to help terminally ill children make their dreams come true.
One of the patients was a seven-year-old boy who had never been to the sea. When he was diagnosed with a terminal illness, his nurse informed the Happy Hospital project of the boy’s dream, one that his parents could not afford.
“He was super excited. He had never been to the sea. When we were on the expressway, he kept asking ‘Are we near yet? Are we near yet?’ and didn’t sleep at all. He was so excited to go to the sea,” Jamjuree told CNA.
In January, they took him and his family to the Bang Saen beach outside Bangkok. For the first time in his life, the boy breathed the salty sea air, played in the waves and dug in the sand. Although his health conditions did not allow him to play for long, Jamjuree said his time on the beach was filled with pure joy and excitement.
“After the trip, his mother said his conditions improved. He was cheerful and things were good for a while. The boy was in high spirits, wanting to go to the sea again. It was like that for about a month before he passed away,” Jamjuree said.
For the team behind the Happy Hospital project, it is important for children in hospitals to have moments of happiness when they get to play like other kids and forget about their pain.
“Sometimes they said their pain level was eight or nine but after doing some activities with us, their nurses would ask ‘How much pain are you experiencing now, darling?’ and they would answer it’s down to three or four,” Jamjuree added.
“They get to forget their pain and illness, and have fun with activities, friends and people who give them attention.”