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In pediatrics, the clock ticks down to Christmas for families
Hospital staff works to get kids home or brighten the holiday for those who stay
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Melody Owusu and 18-month-old daughter Laura stay in one of the Northeast Georgia Medical Center pediatric unit Wednesday, Dec 20, 2017 as the infant suffers from respiratory ailment. - photo by Scott Rogers

Melody Owusu cradled her child in a dim hospital room, oxygen lines snaking from beneath the baby’s nose over the edge of the bed.

It was mid-afternoon, but it could have been midnight in the hushed room where the shades were drawn, the lights off and a sleepless Owusu’s restless child took uncomfortable breaths amid the ticks and pops of pumping oxygen.

Her child, 18-month-old Laura Owusu, was struck with a respiratory syncytial virus, an unkind variety of the cold often seen in pediatric clinics at the start of winter and hard on both babies and parents.

Morning or midnight — time was loose in Room 1310, but it was locked fast and measured carefully in the hallways and offices on the other side of the door, where nurses, doctors and parents were doing their best to clear the pediatric floor of the Northeast Georgia Medical Center before Christmas.

But even around the halls of the hospital, not all was quiet, sad or somber. Just a few doors down the hall from 1310, nurses piled crayons, coloring books, stuffed animals and wrapped presents donated by businesses, the community and other employees of the health system — all of them waiting to brighten the spirits of a child spending the holidays in the hospital bed rather than at home.

“It’s really sweet and very thoughtful — they’re clearly moms,” said Brittani Hawk, the nurse manager of pediatrics as she looked over the wall of Christmas presents bound for unknown children. “They wrote the sex and what (the gift) is for the parent and us so we would know developmentally what is appropriately for the kid. It’s much appreciated, especially when it’s wrapped.”

And there are people like Jessica McIntyre, a nine-year nurse in Gainesville who in previous years has been Santa’s helper in the halls of pediatrics trying to brighten up Christmas for a few unlucky youngsters.

Being in the hospital over Christmas is hardest on the school-age children, those who are sure that Santa, despite being all-knowing and all-seeing, won’t be able to find them away from their return addresses.

“They think Santa Claus is not coming because they’re not at home. They’re worried they’re not going to get what they asked for,” McIntyre said, standing in her scrubs near the pile of presents.

But little do the kids know, they don’t have anything to worry about: The nurses have been enlisted.

In the wee hours of the night shift on Christmas Eve, McIntyre and fellow night shift nurses would steal into the rooms of younger children to plant presents at the foot of beds.

“We would still be here when they woke up, so they would kind of squeal and that would be fun,” McIntyre said.

These days, she’s off the night shift and working in the days leading up to Christmas — where nurses, doctors and parents are working hard to get children home for Christmas, only for the holiday itself, if not for good.

With respiratory illnesses among the most common in pediatrics in the days before Christmas, McIntyre, Hawk and doctors like Rachel Crudgington help train parents for the task of taking care of their ill children at home, if they’re able.

Sometimes, it’s just not possible, which is why McIntyre has seen full patient loads and full beds in pediatrics.

“Of course, medically it’s always hard to tell them we don’t feel like you can go home because you feel like you’re disappointing them,” Crudgington said. “But at the same time it’s just one of those things you have to do to keep them safe.”

But if patients and parents can go home, they can — and should — give Santa every chance of getting those gifts to the right child.

“Anything that the parent can do at home, we make sure they’re comfortable (doing it), and that we educate them,” McIntyre said. “We definitely don’t want anybody here who could potentially go home and be OK.”

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