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One St. Jude program offers caregivers and patients a break.
In the Bone Marrow Transplant unit at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, dinosaurs are running amok. A fearsome stegosaurus, an elegant apatosaurus and a bright red plastic triceratops trample palm trees, fight their way across the bed sheets and transform the attitude of a boy named Daniel Rowe Jr. While Daniel’s grandmother relaxes, the 5-year-old and his new friend, “Paw,” engage in some serious fun.
Paw, also known as David Fisher, is one of about 50 specially trained volunteers who give caregivers a break through a program known as Helping Hands. Believed to be the first hospital-based respite care program of its kind for pediatric cancer patients and their siblings, Helping Hands offers families a precious commodity: stress relief.
The process is simple. A caregiver merely asks a hospital staff member to contact Helping Hands. Available seven days a week, the program provides up to two hours of respite service for inpatients, outpatients and their siblings.
Although many hospitals offer respite care to families in crisis situations, St. Jude has made it a routine part of clinical care. And while many other hospitals require advance appointments for such services, St. Jude offers it immediately upon request, depending on volunteer availability.
“Our Helping Hands volunteers have set shifts each week, with the sole purpose of doing respite care. That kind of coverage doesn’t occur in most hospitals,” explains Director of Volunteer Services Kathryn Berry Carter.
Program participants complete an intensive training regimen that includes shadowing a seasoned volunteer. Although assigned to specific focus areas, Helping Hands staff members are trained to respond to families throughout the hospital. The program has been wildly successful, with approximately 1,320 interactions last year alone.
Helping Hands sessions sometimes occur outside the confines of a hospital room. Volunteer Randa Rosenblum understands the value of a change of scenery. Sometimes at night Rosenblum takes children to a glass-enclosed hallway with a view of the city, and they dance to the music of a small radio. Occasionally, she and siblings lie on their backs in the grass and identify animal shapes in the clouds.
“I get far more out of Helping Hands than I could ever imagine,” she says. “I love being with the kids. It’s pure joy. They’re incredibly strong, courageous, open children, who are full of hope. I’ve been given so much by being with them and their families. It has transformed my life.”
Abridged from Promise, Summer 2013