Some are deluged with too many Teddy bears. Others have to turn visitors away.
It’s that time of year when children’s hospitals are overwhelmed with gifts — and calls from people who’d like to deliver them personally. This holiday season, hospital officials say new federal privacy regulations and a particularly nasty flu bug have made it even tougher to fulfill all the requests they get.
Seventh-grader Robin Krawchuk ran into the strict rules when she asked to deliver toys to patients at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, where she was a leukemia patient several years ago.
Young donor rebuffed
“I wanted to do it to repay people that did it for me,” says the 13-year-old girl. “And it’s fun, talking to the kids and seeing them — and just walking in there with a big bag of toys.”
The hospital’s staff compromised by having her deliver the toys to their lobby.
“The girl did a nice thing,” says Jackie Gauger, spokeswoman for Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in suburban Milwaukee.
“But the reality is most kids, when they’re in the hospital these days, are really sick. So a visit by someone they don’t know — even if it’s a kid who went through something similar in the past — they don’t necessarily think that’s a neat thing.”
Many hospitals staffs say the same.
“A lot of people — their heart is in the right place,” says Troy Pinkney-Ragsdale, director of child life at Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx, N.Y.
But timing is part of the problem, she says. It’s just too busy now. “This is not the only time of year,” she says. “The rest of the year, we would love to accommodate them.”
Her hospital already had tightened its visitation policies before the implementation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, federal health care privacy laws that went into effect in April.
Strict rules for visitors
Visitors there, other than family members, are limited to one group a day; are told not to question children about their health; and are not allowed to visit if they have cold or flu symptoms.
Other children’s hospitals don’t allow strangers to visit patient floors and some also have limited carolers to lobbies or common areas.
While it depends on how each hospital administration interprets the HIPAA regulations, many say that the new laws — and the potentially deadly flu season — have helped visitors understand their rules.
“It’s kind of given us a leg to stand on,” says Katie Lawhead, child life specialist and coordinator of community donations at the Medical College of Georgia-Children’s Medical Center in Augusta, Ga.
Even so, hospital staffs are taken aback by some requests from gift-givers.
“Some people say ’I want only the cancer children who are bald.’ And I say, ’There are lots of kids who still want a present,”’ says Eileen Andrade, child life director at University Children’s Hospital in Orange, Calif. “In my opinion, sometimes it’s about someone trying to fill their needs and not the child’s.”
Spreading cheer throughout the year
She and others appreciate the gift donations they get — and often distribute them throughout the year.
But they say there are ways people could help even more.
For one, children’s hospitals often have a shortage of gifts for babies and teens. It’s also best, they say, if the gifts are new and in their original package.
Meanwhile, Andrade says she gets many requests from teens looking to fulfill their school’s volunteer requirements.
This year, she says one group of high-schoolers is assembling bags of stocking stuffers for young patients — and having a bake sale at school to raise money to purchase the items.
Some hospitals encourage groups to do activities with young patients who are feeling up for it, rather than buying gifts.
This week, for instance, health teacher Tammy Torres took about 20 students from Murry Bergtraum High School in Manhattan to Children’s Hospital at Montefiore. They made holiday cards with older children and sang with younger kids.
‘It made me feel better’
“I remember when I was in the hospital when I was younger,” says 14-year-old Stephanie Alicea, one of the students. “They had little parties — and it made me feel better.”
Back in Wisconsin, Krawchuk went to the local newspaper to make her case to deliver the toys to the children’s hospital. The story spread across the state — and hundreds more people donated toys to her cause.
She and her family have been spreading the wealth at a second hospital near their home and to needy families.
“It’s our Christmas,” says her mom, Lynette Uttech. “It’s basically what we do over the holidays.”