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Long-Term Hospital Stays

If your child needs to stay in the hospital for an extended period of time—whether it’s days, weeks, or even months—you might unsure of what to expect. Will your child get the care he or she needs? Will you be able to stay at the hospital overnight, or somewhere nearby? And what about your child’s schooling? Will your child fall behind in school?

It’s never easy when your child has to be in the hospital for a long time. Not only are you worried and anxious, but there are practical issues to deal with too – especially if you’ve had to travel from your hometown to a different city for specialized treatment. Fortunately, many hospitals – and children’s hospitals in particular – offer a wide variety of support to families when they need it most.

Lodging for Family Members

Research has shown that having family nearby is both physically and emotionally beneficial to children dealing with long-term hospital stays. It’s also reassuring for parents, who can maintain a higher level of involvement with their child’s care team.

Over the past few decades, it’s become much easier for parents to stay near their child who is sick. For one thing, hospitals typically allow one parent to sleep in their child’s room, often on a fold-out chair or a cot. If you’ve traveled for treatment, many hospitals can also help you find temporary lodging that can serve as a home away from home for the weeks or months your child needs care. This may be a hotel room or furnished apartment, often offered at a special rate, or a local Ronald McDonald House.

Ronald McDonald Houses are unique places. They’re located near many major hospitals all over the world, and they let entire families stay together when a child has to travel for treatment. Funded by donations (families are asked to pay what they are able to), they offer many of the amenities of home, such as private bedrooms, home-cooked meals, and playrooms. Many also offer more specialized services, such as suites exclusively for children with compromised immune systems, educational and recreational activities, and support programs for siblings.

Perhaps just as important, they provide a sense of community, letting families know they’re not alone in facing a child’s illness.

Keeping Up With Schoolwork

In the hospital, your child will receive more than just medical care. He or she will also get plenty of emotional and social support, much of which is centered around maintaining as many of the routines of home as possible. For children who are physically able, school is an essential part of this plan.

Most hospitals have provisions for schooling. Certified teachers may give instruction at the bedside or to small groups of children in a hospital “classroom.” Though schoolwork might not seem like a priority in light of your child’s illness, it’s extremely important for kids whose doctors give the okay. Not only does school give children a sense of purpose and normalcy, but any classroom environment – even one in the hospital – invites opportunities for friendship and peer support.

Teachers at the hospital can also coordinate with your child’s teacher at home, sending assignments back and forth to help your child stay current with classwork. And because your child is likely to have access to a bedside computer or laptop, it’s easy to keep in touch through texting, email, or video chats. Staying involved with school may help your child feel closer to friends at home and make it easier to go back once he or she is able.

Healing Through Play

Play is fun for all children, but it’s especially important for kids in the hospital. Play relieves stress, helps children express their emotions, and can also be used to teach kids about their condition.

Most hospitals have playrooms with toys, arts and crafts, video games – and if your child isn’t able to go to the playroom, these things can be brought to his or her bedside. Visitors like clowns or even therapy pets may stop by to bring a smile, and special events like birthdays and holidays are never forgotten.

Child life specialists are often the people who facilitate your child’s recreation in the hospital. Trained in child development, these professionals use a variety of play techniques to help children of all ages cope with the fear and stress of being hospitalized and undergoing multiple medical procedures. They also can serve as a great resource once your child leaves the hospital, providing tips and advice on helping your child readjust to home and school life.

Other Support Services

For parents staying overnight at the hospital, there are a number services available to make life a little easier.

Many hospitals offer family rooms that may include such amenities as kitchenettes, showers, cots, laundry facilities, TV, computers, and quiet reading rooms. Places like these are important because they allow family members to take much-needed breaks but still be nearby. Additional conveniences may include cafeterias, on-site pharmacies, and gift shops. Volunteers also often make the rounds, offering coffee, tea, magazines, and newspapers.

For staying in touch with loved ones, computers with free Internet access are frequently found in certain areas of the hospital. Here you may want to take advantage of online services like CaringBridge, which allows you to write, create, and maintain a webpage and online journal about your child’s progress to keep friends and family updated on your child’s condition.

And while your child is getting the care he or she needs, there are many hospital staff members available to help you, too. These professionals may include:

  • chaplains, who can offer spiritual care and support

  • psychiatrists and psychologists, who can help families deal with feelings of anger, fear, or sadness

  • social workers, who also can help with coping issues, as well as coordinate any necessary assistance, such as locating an interpreter, making preparations for home equipment, and helping with insurance issues

  • financial counselors, who are trained to help you manage the financial aspects of your child’s care

  • support groups for both you and your child

Coping With a Child’s Long-Term Illness

Any time a child is sick enough to be hospitalized, it puts added stress on a family. But a long-term hospital stay is more like a marathon than a sprint. That’s why it’s important to take care of yourself [link to caregiver article] during the course of your child’s treatment. Staying by your child’s side 24/7 can lead to caregiver burnout so it’s important to get some down time – whether that means taking shifts with a spouse or other family member, or simply giving yourself permission to spend some time away from the hospital to regroup.

If you need more help coping, reach out to a counselor or social worker, or ask your child’s doctor about a local support group. You’ll find there are many people who want to help you and your family at this time.