Students Spend Winter Break at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis
Let’s face it. You’d be hard pressed to find many Keene State students who like to spend time in a hospital—let alone spend their winter break in one. However, after taking a few weeks to unwind following their fall semester and spending the holidays with their families, 10 Keene State students did just that—traveling down to the Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, TN.
One of many domestic and international alternative break trips sponsored by the College’s Community Service Office, the week of spreading a little bit of happiness and laughter to sick patients at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital—a 255-bed, tertiary care hospital located in downtown Memphis—was an opportunity that the students couldn’t pass up.
The trip struck an emotional chord for many of the students, including Kenny Hadley, a senior communication major from Newfield, NH, and one of the trip’s two team leaders. As a young child, Hadley had a liver transplant at the Boston Children’s Hospital and felt the trip would allow him the chance to give back and connect with a patient who was facing a similar procedure—something he happily was able to accomplish.
One of three freshmen in the group, Keene native Kayla Smith liked the pediatric focus of the trip. She had cared for a local girl with Rett syndrome – a disorder of the nervous system that leads to developmental reversals – and was looking forward to working with other children. “I was so excited when I found out I was chosen for the trip,” said Smith, a nursing major. “I always wanted to work with kids in a hospital setting, so this was a first big step for me.”
A sophomore from Ellington, CT, Jessica Baker, called the trip a life-changing experience. An education major prior to the trip, Baker, who admits to being a bit squeamish at the sight of blood, was introduced to several inspiring health-care related fields at the hospital. “I definitely knew I wanted to work in a hospital with kids, but I really didn’t know how I could do that without being a nurse,” said Baker, who intends to switch her major to psychology. “This trip gave me the answers I was looking for. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
Competitive Application Process
Participation in community service trips is highly competitive. Students submit applications void of names, gender, and class year to team leaders, who then select team members based on their answers to a series of questions. The first-time trip to the hospital proved to be very appealing to many KSC students.
The 10 student volunteers piled into two vans for the 22-hour trip to Tennessee the day after New Year’s. They spent their first day in Memphis taking tours and going through an orientation with the hospital’s volunteer services. The following day, they teamed up in pairs or small groups, scattering among the hospital’s many floors in hopes of bringing a little sunshine into the lives of the patients and their parents.
Provided with a to-do list when they arrived each morning, including requests to play or sit with a child, the students typically didn’t arrive at a patient’s room empty-handed. Special activity, beverage, and hospitality carts, as well as access to a teen room, creative rooms, and a movie theatre, gave them numerous options to help entertain the kids.
“I remember walking on a floor with the activity cart and saw this little boy who looked pretty down,” said Smith. “I gave him a Teddy bear and his face lit up. I saw him a few days later and he was still carrying it around.”
The trip did have its share of lighthearted moments. A couple of the KSC students added their own unique brand of whimsical fun on activity cart patrol by donning capes during their visit—a trend that caught on with the parents and many of the nurses. “We weren’t able to talk about medical-related things with these kids; we could just play with them,” added Smith. “Being able to see a kid smile when they had a really bad day was so great.”
“Bringing a smile to a child’s face is definitely one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever experienced,” Baker said. “It gives you such a high and you’re just euphoric about it. There’s nothing better. I think that’s what drove me to want to continue doing this type of work.” No request was taken lightly. Whether they were making cookies in the FedEx Family House—a home away from home for out-of-town families with children receiving treatment at the hospital—or staying with a child so a parent could take a much-needed break, the Keene State students relished each moment.
It’s hard to spend time with children without creating a special bond, and several of the KSC students found themselves getting emotionally connected to certain patients, including one little boy who had a tumor removed. “We gave him some crayons and a coloring book and one of the guys hooked up some video games for him. He was laughing and very happy, considering he was in a hospital,” said Baker. “We went back to see him a few days later and you could tell he was experiencing stomach pains. His dad asked if he wanted to take medicine and he said, ‘No if I take the medicine it will make me fall asleep and then my friends will leave. I don’t want my friends to leave.’”
Making the Connection
The Keene State students made a connection not only with the patients, but also with many of their parents. “The parents were so thankful that we had spent time with their child and they tried to give us money to go buy toys for other kids,” said Smith. “We told them, ‘You don’t understand; we love doing this.’ It was so heartwarming to know that I made a difference.”
Experiencing a myriad of emotions during their trip, the students retreated every evening to their makeshift overnight accommodations (a recreation center at a local church), where they reflected on what they had experienced at the hospital. “On the first day we had training and spent a half hour talking, but by the middle to the week with all the connections and emotions, we reflected for about three hours,” said Hadley. “There were tears, and not just connecting with the patients, but all of us were starting to connect with each other as well.”
“I knew we were going to be friends, but the type of service we were doing brought us closer than most trips,” said Baker. “I didn’t leave with just an experience, I left with a family.”
That family continues to meet on campus, reflecting on the trip and planning other service-related opportunities in the local area. “I was nervous we were going to get all girls or nursing majors, but we had such a diverse group,” said Hadley, noting that the students, both men and women, came from a wide variety of experiences and majors. “It was really unique group – some of them I now count as my closest friends.”
Baker says a day doesn’t go by when she doesn’t think about the trip and her teammates. “It’s something you don’t want to forget, because it was so monumental and made me think how lucky I am when it comes to my health,” she said.
Would she make the trip to Tennessee again? “In a heartbeat,” said Smith, without hesitation.