Chai Blog: Jen Gelberger

The Toronto branch of Chai Lifeline Canada has four case managers (including myself), who each carry a full caseload. Every day one of the case managers goes down to Sick Kids to visit our clients, whether they are inpatient, in for outpatient chemo/treatment or in for appointments. In Toronto alone we service close to 400 families! People often ask me what it is I do when I visit clients at Sick Kids Hospital. The answer is every hospital visit looks a little different depending on the client, their mood, how their feeling at that particular time, their age, and how long they have been inpatient for. I always try to come to the hospital well stocked with toys and food. We have an incredible toy room that is overflowing with all the toys that have been donated- primarily through our annual toy drive as well as from generous donations that are made throughout the year from individual donors, bar/bat mitzvah kids, and directly by toy stores. I would encourage anyone who has the opportunity, to stop by the office and see for themselves how beautifully the space is organized. We are lucky to have an incredibly dedicated volunteer, who devotes hours and hours every week to keeping the toy room well organized and tidy, as well as often personally securing toy donations for Chai Lifeline. This volunteer, who asked to remain anonymous, came to appreciate how valuable the toys are after her own son was serviced by Chai Lifeline several years ago when he was undergoing treatment for Cancer. The toys are all sorted by type so there are board games, crafts, dolls, LEGO, books, puzzles, and a baby section to name a few. Families are invited by their case managers to come choose toys from the toy room (people often come before or after appointments), as well as the case managers and volunteers bring down toys to each hospital or home visit.

Over time we get to know exactly the specific toys that serve as good distractions for the kids while they are in getting treatment, often hooked up to various IV’s and machines, that don’t allow them to leave their hospital bed or room. I have had many parents tell me they look forward to our visits as it is often the only time their kids will pick their heads up from their ipads or TV. We also usually stop to pick up either snacks or lunch for families who are in the hospital. I find often times parents forget to eat, or won’t eat out of solidarity of sorts, while their child is not allowed to eat due to various medical reasons. Sometimes I offer to stay in the room to hang out with a child, so the parent can go eat in the hallway or cafeteria and not have to feel guilty for doing so.

Perhaps if I share the details of my most recent day at the hospital (end of last week) it can paint a better picture of some of the work we case managers do. Every morning all of the case managers post on our group chat which of our clients will be in the hospital that given day, if anyone has any special requests, or needs any medications picked up on our way home. After collecting toys from the office, stopping at a restaurant to pick up the Mac and Cheese and fries one of the girls getting chemo was craving (pretty typical request as many people crave salty while undergoing chemo), and stopping at another local grocer to get some other food such as fresh cut fruit, sushi, muffins for some of the other people I was going to visit, I was ready to start heading downtown. On this particular day I also stopped to pick up a home made meal a volunteer prepared, to personally deliver it to a family who lives downtown. Part of the challenge of planning a very organized hospital day is that things always change. I always envision I will start on the 8th floor (Oncology), visit all those clients and than slowly work my way down the floors to make sure I don’t skip anyone. However, this rarely works so smoothly as I always have to keep timing and germ control in mind. I make sure to see people who are only in for clinic or appointments before the inpatients- while also making sure to see anyone who may be contagious last as I don’t want to be the one to transfer germs!

I started in clinic where I was quickly flagged down by an adorable 6 year old who instantly recognized me (and the many many chai lifeline bags in my hands) and started calling out “ Jen, what did you bring for me? My mommy said we have to stay here all day”. The mom sheepishly apologized to me for her daughters “rudeness”, and than started explaining to the little girl that she forgot to message her case manager to let her know they would be in all day, and that surely I did not plan to meet them and wouldn’t have anything for her. The girl looked like she was going to cry. Luckily I was able to quickly turn the frown upside down by pulling out a big chocolate chip muffin and a really neat magnetic princess puzzle. Both mom and daughter were very appreciative and after staying to play the new puzzle for a few minutes I started heading towards the room of the next client I was going to see. While with the next client (a young girl getting chemo), I got a message from one of my colleagues saying her client just called saying she has been with her daughter for hours in the ER and was wondering if anyone from Chai happened to be in the hospital. I called the mom and was able to meet up with her right outside the emergency room. She proceeded to tell me the whole story of how she had to bring her daughter in, as once again her child spiked a terrible fever. She looked exhausted and stressed, and it was pretty clear she left her house in the middle of the night in a rush, and didn’t have time to pack a bag or prepare. I reached into my bag and gave her a yogurt parfait and a roll of sushi. She gave me a huge hug and than just started laughing. She expressed how greatful she was and she didn’t even realize how hungry she was until she saw the food! Things like this happen all the time which is why I always bring some extra toys and a few extra snacks to distribute. I think one of the greatest challenges when caring for a sick loved one is how unpredictable life becomes. I then proceeded to visit all the other people in that day which included; the mother of a week old newborn who was in the NICU, a ten year old who was in for chemo, a 6 month old baby who was brought in from out of town (from a small town outside of GTA) specifically to get treatment at Sick Kids, and the mom of a teen who was in isolation so I wasn’t actually able to see the boy himself. Some of these visits were as brief as a few minutes, while others I stayed with for 20 minutes or more. By the time I picked up my phone after visiting the last client it was pretty clear I would be spending my drive back to the office returning calls from clients I missed and responding to text requests that had come in.

I wish I could say this day stands out as it was extraordinary, but the truth is this was just a typical day for a case manager at Chai Lifeline. Although hospital days are not only emotionally draining, but physically exhuasting as well, it is by far my favorite part of my job. The satisfying feeling of spending time with someone who is feeling truly lonely, distracting a child in pain, or being able to deliver food to someone who may have not even realize how hungry they are is something I can not properly express in words.

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