Cardinal Glennon strives for holiday hope

On the night before Christmas, all through the children’s hospital, there are still hopes that St. Nicholas soon will be there. They’ll know that a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer, with a little old driver lively and quick, surely arrived, because they’ll awaken on Christmas morning to find a bag full of goodies outside their door. That’s thanks to the nurses and a community effort at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis.

Feeling loved and with the hope of Christ that Christmas brings comes easily at the only freestanding Catholic pediatric hospital in the nation.

Special traditions

Abbie Hedgpeth, a certified child life specialist at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon, explained that the child life team tries to keep as much normality in patients’ lives as possible by celebrating birthdays and holidays. December is a month filled with visits from celebrities, professional athletes and entertainers. The celebrities and athletes visit patients at bedside and often provide gifts such as autographed sports memorabilia. Musicians perform a variety of Christmas music.

A few days before Christmas, Santa lands at the hospital aboard Glennon One, a helicopter normally used to transport trauma patients from other facilities. Patients are made aware of his arrival ahead of time and eagerly watch from their windows. He visits patients in their rooms and distributes gifts.

Meanwhile, the effort for Christmas Day is underway as community groups, companies, Girl Scout troops, schoolchildren and others donate toys. Members of Hedgpeth’s department sort and pack up the age-appropriate items on Christmas Eve and deliver them to the nurses’ stations so St. Nicholas can do his work. An example of the generosity is Working Spaces and Kimball Office, which host an annual event with partnering architectural and interior design firms competing in a stocking decorating competition. The stockings and toys are donated as a result.

Hedgpeth is touched by the generosity. Especially noteworthy, she said, is when a child has a birthday party and instead of keeping the gifts donates them to the hospital patients.

“It makes you feel happy, grateful and thankful,” she said of the donations. “It’s so good to see that the patients and families aren’t missing out on things and it helps them cope with being in the hospital during the holidays.” She’s also grateful for the visitors. “Seeing the baseball player or hockey player of their dreams, or members of St. Louis University’s basketball team, for example, is a thrill” for the patients, Hedgpeth said.

The true meaning of Christmas isn’t skipped at the Catholic hospital either. Carolers don’t avoid religious-themed songs as they might at a secular hospital. And anyone who is able is urged over the public address system to attend Mass on Christmas in the chapel.

Children in solidarity

Children around the St. Louis area and beyond reach out to the young patients at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon, sending aptly named Messages of Hope during the Advent season and beyond.

It is an opportunity for people in the community who are thinking and praying about the children to express that love and hope to the families and the children so they know they are not alone.

Participants write a personal message to a child being treated at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon that is then placed in the chest under the Tree of Hope in the atrium of the hospital. Patients, their families, even hospital staff take notes from the chest to share.

The Messages of Hope uplift their spirits and remind them they are being prayed for by people all over the globe. These inspirational, handwritten messages are scrolled in colorful thumb bands and displayed in a treasure chest underneath the Tree of Hope in the hospital atrium.

“We are grateful to everyone in our community and beyond who write Messages of Hope to our patients who are not able to come home for the holidays,” said Sandy Koller, vice president, philanthropy for SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Foundation. “Their inspirational messages help uplift our young patients who may be feeling down during this joyful holiday season.”

SSM Health Cardinal Glennon had a tree-lighting ceremony on Nov. 20. Choir members from St. Mary Magdalen Grade School in the suburb of Brentwood, Missouri, sang Christmas carols and wrote Messages of Hope. A priest blessed the tree. The cost of an extensive lighting display at the hospital is paid for by Ameren Missouri.

Lucy McCarthy, a sixth-grader at St. Mary Magdalen, said the choir members wanted to “make people feel happy. Some of the patients won’t be able to leave for Christmas. It’s just a special time when they can listen to Christmas songs and have fun. I like seeing the smiles on their faces when they hear the Christmas songs,” she said.

Sydney Gale, an eighth-grader at St. Mary Magdalen who has sung at the Christmas event three times, said she enjoyed helping the patients take their minds off of whatever led to their hospital stay. Her Message of Hope to them is that “God will help you through it. ... Always trust in Him.”

Noah Rodgers, an eighth-grader at the school who also is on his third tour singing at the hospital, said he wanted to bring “the true meaning of Christmas” and show “the joy of Christ.” He appreciates the Catholic community’s support of SSM Health Cardinal Glennon because “the Bible tells us to do service for others. One service we can do is to bring joy to the sick, and a way to do that is by singing to them like we did.”

Ongoing needs

The public also is invited to remember the patients and families at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon by making a donation to the hospital in thanks for the joy and blessings in their own lives. They take part in the annual Tree of Hope appeal, which supports the care provided by doctors, nurses and caregivers who bring the Catholic hospital’s mission to life each day.

“Through our exceptional health care services, we reveal the healing presence of God” is the mission of SSM Health Cardinal Glennon as it touches the lives of more than 200,000 children each year from Missouri, Illinois and around the world. The hospital cares for all children, regardless of their family’s ability to pay.

Because no child is turned away due to their family’s inability to pay, the hospital relies on the generous hearts of contributors, and that is why the Tree of Hope program is important each Christmas.

The pastoral care department at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon is mindful of bringing the hope of Christ to patients all year. While no special events are held, daily Mass is celebrated in the chapel each day Sundays through Fridays, including Christmas Eve and Christmas.

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June Pearse, team leader in pastoral care, said a Christmas tree is added to go along with a year-round, built-in Nativity scene in the back of the chapel.

Patients and their families are made welcome to attend Mass or to stop in the chapel anytime.

The pastoral staff also continues its rounds with patients during the holidays. While the medical staff tries to see that patients who are well enough get home for Christmas, others remain in the rooms under care.

“Some families may bring part or all of their Christmas (celebration) in, but usually over any holiday what you hear is that all they want is for their children to get well,” Pearse said. “They’ll say, ‘Our Christmas plans can wait until our child gets better. We’ll have Christmas when we get home.’”

Joe Kenny writes from Missouri.