Life in Australian hospitals has been far from normal for most children in 2020, with many reporting heightened levels of anxiety — but hospitals and organisations that support them hope recent initiatives could ease some of that burden.
- Childrens’ anxiety levels increased during the coronavirus pandemic due to social isolation and PPE worn by hospital staff
- Many hospitals and support organisations are trialling initiatives like virtual celebrities visits and ‘Clown Doctor on Call’ to ease children’s anxiety
- One parent wants all children in hospital wards across Australia to have access to iPads so they can benefit from virtual distractions
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, patients on most children’s hospital wards across the country are only allowed one guardian bedside.
They have not been allowed visitors, group art and therapy sessions have been reduced and masks are mandatory when patients are out of their rooms in some states.
Additional personal protective equipment workers need to wear is also adding to child anxiety levels, according to hospital staff.
Sydney mum, Donna Truscott, spent most of July and August in and out of the Westmead Hospital with her 15-year-old son Mason, who underwent two spinal operations for scoliosis — a sideways curve in the spine.
“Being in a hospital with a kid is one of the most difficult things, but being in there with coronavirus around you knowing that I can’t have family come in, I can’t have a break, it’s difficult,” Ms Truscott said.
Ms Truscott said one thing that helped take some of the mental strain away was The Humour Foundation’s Clown Doctors.
The Clown Doctors, who are slapstick performers trained to help make sick kids laugh, first visited Mason on the children’s ward but the visits soon changed to virtual ones.
The family was one of the first to experience the Clown Doctors on Call Program — a new way for Clown Doctors to virtually visit sick children no matter where they are.
“Mason’s rapping with them and singing with them and doctors and nurses are walking by and they can see the joy that these people bring to children,” Ms Truscott said.
“We’ve been lucky to have the evolution of technology so it’s nice that we can have Clown Doctors zoom chat children and I hope that all hospitals across Australia embrace that.
“Maybe our Government might put forward a little bit of funding and give hospitals iPads and things like that so nurses in different wards can zoom chat Clown Doctors.”
“We can visit so many more kids than we could before”
The Humour Foundation’s artistic director David Symons said the new on call program was helping Clown Doctors visit hospitals and outpatients they could not physically get to.
“We can now zoom into rural, regional and remote Australia and we’ve now got programs happening in Townsville which we didn’t have before, and there’s a possibility of something happening in Armadale [in Western Australia] where we haven’t had work before,” Mr Symons said.
“When we fully roll it out we could be visiting 100 more kids a week.”
In Tasmania, Libby Dobson, AKA Dr Wing It, and Tayna Maxwell, AKA Dr Very Much, were forced to take off their clown noses for five months, as they were not allowed to visit the state’s public hospitals for safety reasons.
There are no active cases of coronavirus in Tasmania and the Clown Doctors have been allowed back onto wards to add much-needed laughter.
“It’s changed a little bit, in that we’re more aware of space and giving people space, and I miss bubbles, because we can’t blow bubbles at the moment, but really the fun, the joy and the silliness is all there.”
Virtual celebrity visits and TV games easing hospital anxiety
Other Australian hospitals are also introducing their own unique initiatives to ease children’s anxiety levels and feelings of social isolation.
Celebrities, including Chris Hemsworth and Margot Robbie, have been virtually visiting the Queensland Children’s Hospital through its in-house TV program and the hospital is also running campaigns to let children know there are friendly staff under masks.
The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne is also using its in-house TV program to keep children connected, entertained and informed.
The hospital’s child life therapist Carlie Alicastro said the live “be positive” show now ran five times a week — before the pandemic began it was only twice a week.
Ms Alicastro said children were playing games like Pictionary and hospital lingo — similar to Bingo — from the hospital beds through the TV show to help normalise the hospital environment.
“That’s been really beneficial for the kids because it gives them something to look forward to and it builds a routine into their day,” Ms Alicastro said.
“We do find that children, their anxiety and fear around hospitalisation, is increased because they’re not getting those activities that help to normalise it and make the hospital like a home.
“Part of our role on the TV show and with child life therapy is to help children understand why we’re wearing PPE and to help them cope better with the clinicians coming in wearing that PPE.”
Hospitals and support organisations said despite the duration of the pandemic being uncertain, the new initiatives are here to stay.