As Freddie, a trained therapy camel, bends to fit through the front door, fascinated children watch in the entryway. A camel inside the House?! Such excitement! Freddie, whose gentle temperament is similar to a friendly dog, approaches the children carefully…happy to nuzzle an outstretched hand. At George Mark Children’s House in San Leandro, California, the motto is: Why not? Why not have camels, miniature horses, and exotic creatures from the local zoo visit sick children who may never have had the opportunity to interact with unusual animals before?
The complex medical diagnoses that bring young patients to George Mark means that their lives have often been restricted: some to a hospital bed for extended periods; others to wheelchairs; still others to long courses of chemotherapy or rehab. The entire GMCH team makes a practice of overcoming limitations to add fun and enticing activities to patient visits.
Kaitlyn is one of George Mark’s “frequent flyers” — a patient who returns for respite regularly. She contends with uncontrolled epilepsy and a severe digestive disorder. But in many ways, she’s just like other teens, with a passion for drawing, movies, and learning about art. Kaitlyn needs care around the clock, and her mom Liz juggles it all — while also being a mom to Kaitlyn’s teen brother and toddler sister. Liz is remarkable, and George Mark Children’s House is proud to be her back-up. Liz says: “I’m honored to take care of Kaitlyn. And the reality is that it is 24/7. The first time I brought Kaitlyn to George Mark, I hadn’t been away from her overnight for four years.”
During her respite care stays, Kaitlyn throws herself into art projects, sings with a Music Therapist, and spends time relaxing with therapy dogs. On one visit, Kaitlyn met an animator who volunteers to work with patients. He showed Kaitlyn, who was completely intrigued, how he develops his drawings into animated films. George Mark’s caring nursing staff, social worker and child life specialist work together to make Kaitlyn’s stays medically safe, comfortable, and special. Nothing makes the clinical team happier than to know that Kaitlyn set her cell phone to count down the days and hours until her next visit.
George Mark is tranquil and nurturing, a place where families can stay together and spend quality time with their children, the majority of whom are receiving respite care, some over many years. Rather than the bright lights and noisy quarters of a hospital, they have quiet, comfortable rooms; spacious apartments for families; a sanctuary of gardens; an outdoor playground with specially-equipped play structures for children with both physical and developmental challenges.
George Mark Children’s House initially opened its welcoming doors in 2004 as the first free-standing center in the United States devoted to pediatric palliative care. George Mark is proud to be the model for several similar facilities which have since opened, with the hope that this type of lovely care will become readily available to children and young adults throughout the United States. To learn more, visit: www.georgemark.org or watch Dr. Kathy Hull’s Ted Talk.