· Vatican City ·

Interview with the President of the Bambino Gesù Children’s Hospital in Rome

The best Christmas present is to go back home

 The best Christmas present  is to go back home  ING-049
09 December 2022

“I think that Christmas means being able to be with my friends and my family, even in hospital, because I know that the doctors are doing their best to make me better”. These are the words of Giulio, a 15-year-old patient in the Bambino Gesù Hospital, which really convey the feelings of the little ones hospitalized in the Paediatric Hospital of Rome in this period of Advent. Time passes slowly for those in a hospital bed, even more so for the children and their parents. Christmas is synonymous of festivity, with families getting together, with kids playing. In hospital, on the other hand, one experiences an unnatural separation imposed by the illness which only accentuates the desire for normality. “When you’re in hospital” — confides Simone, father of nine-year-old Cecilia — you dream of going home together, of being able to have breakfast together. When that happens, it is a moment of extraordinary happiness”. Doctors, nurses and volunteers work beside these children and their families every day. For them too, the period leading up to Christmas is lived in a special way with strong commitment to ensure that the young patients recover as soon as possible and spend their hospitalization surrounded by the affection of their dear ones and by the human warmth of the medical staff. This was underlined by the President of the Bambino Gesù Children’s Hospital, Dr Mariella Enoc, who — in this interview with “L’Osservatore Romano” — confides her personal hopes for Christmas and dwells on the importance of sympathetic medical care, as it fosters an empathetic relationship with those who suffer.

We are in the Season of Advent. Advent means waiting. Obviously for Christians it means waiting for the Birth of Jesus. Even for those who do not have the gift of faith it is still a special time of year. How is this particular period spent in an hospital environment such as yours? How is Advent spent in a Children’s Hospital like yours?

Children in Hospital, like all children, look forward to Christmas with excitement. We slowly help Christian children to understand that Christmas is an important Feast Day. The Birthday of Jesus who is their friend and therefore must be celebrated. Non-Christian children experience this sense of expectation, of festivity, which does not have a definition as it does for the others. Nevertheless they understand that they are expecting not only a parcel, but a Person.

In this Season of Advent and then of course at Christmas, many people offer to bring presents for the  children in hospital, and this will certainly happen at  the Bambino Gesù Hospital as well. What do you think is the greatest gift these children are waiting for?

The greatest gift is being able to get well, being able to go back home, and I earnestly ask people not to bring presents to the Bambino Gesù Hospital. The children receive so many gifts because they have a family; we give them to the families too, so they can give them to the children. So it’s not at all necessary. Turn the presents into something that helps scientific research! In Brazil I learned a proverb that I like very much: “When you approach a poor person, a frail person, if your arms are loaded with presents you will not be able to embrace him/her, instead he/she longs for an embrace”. This is what our little patients expect.

Christmas is a happy time, especially a time when families get together. Instead, in hospital, one experiences a feeling of separation due to the illness. In your experience, how do the families of hospitalized children spend this particular time of year and what can you do to make spending Christmas in hospital brighter?

Actually, in our hospital, families can stay close to their children. Even in intensive care, a family member can stay by the child. This decision was strongly opposed but then it was understood that this presence can really help a child to fight and recover. So we try to let them stay together. Besides, we help families that come from far away, maybe families with only one parent, the mother or the father. We help them to be part of all the other family circles so that it is like an extended  family. This helps people not to feel sad because of the empty place at table at home and helps those patients who are here with only one relative not to feel too lonely because they are part of a community anyway.

We talked about the families of hospitalized children. Hospitals can never stop: Advent and Christmas time are always a busy period, of great commitment and this also applies to the nurses, doctors and all the medical staff. What strikes you about these parents, these families? Because the medical staff also has a family and obviously wishes to spend Christmas with the  family, whereas, at times, precisely because of their work, they are obliged to stay here….

Well, those who choose this career know what their lot will be! However, the shifts are always arranged so that the staff can be at home either at noon or in the evening on Christmas Day. But in the hospital many unexpected events occur. Maybe an organ, a heart, needs to be fetched immediately, even if the doctor is at home. The doctor on call has to prepare the team. And everyone, even if at table, is readily available. Or there might be a very difficult case for which the head physician needs to be present. Well and good, the head physician comes to the hospital. I’ve never heard anyone say: “But I had to give up Christmas lunch”. I have never heard this said in this hospital.

For millions of Ukrainian children this will be a terrible Christmas, marked by fear and distress. Many children have come from Ukraine to the Bambino Gesù Hospital and still more are arriving. Some are still hospitalized here. How do you deal with this situation in the hospital, if there is an emergency on top of the daily emergency?

We have treated about 1,800 of these children. Some with families, others with just a parent or a sibling and right now what we are trying to do is to surround them with love so as to help them forget the adversity they have experienced. No gift can compensate for this, but if they feel truly loved, affection that is not just a façade, they experience reciprocal communication! This also applies to families: the father who is here alone with his little girl whose arm has been amputated, the mother who came with her family.... They feel particularly lonely at this time because of the war. What can we do for them? Simply what we do for everyone, for children all over the world: we make them feel they have a family. Above all the doctors, nurses, each one of us must imbue them with love. They can feel it, they perceive it! They come from a destructive experience. One little Ukrainian girl didn’t even want to be touched for three days; she stared at the ceiling.

Pope Francis came to visit these children in the hospital last March…

During his visit, the Pope caressed a child who was crying. He was extraordinarily gentle with these children who had experienced trauma, as have many other children of so many wars who have been admitted here. We try to give them a sense of family warmth: love is felt, perceived, real affection. And this is something you experience in this hospital, in the treatment, in healing. It’s what children expect. In these moments, we try to let them feel this love even more.

You have been President of the Bambino Gesù Hospital since 2015. What does Christmas mean for you?

In this hospital, Christmas is every day, not because it’s called Bambino Gesù (Child Jesus) but because every day when a child recovers it’s as though he/she were reborn to new life. So, I think Christmas happens a bit every day! That transplant was successful; the child with the dysmetabolic disease has been cured. You see, every time someone recovers, it is Christmas for me, we feel it is Christmas.

Among the many happy and inevitably less happy endings that you have seen over the years, is there one that expresses the most authentic meaning of Christmas that you would like to share?

There are many episodes, but I can talk about one case in these days. In our palliative care centre — a case touched me really deeply, I had wanted it with all my might! — a child from Yemen was admitted. He was accompanied by his brother, a very complicated story. This child has facial cancer that is destroying him: surgery would have made things worse. So palliative care is being applied to relieve the pain but it is really a terrible sight. I went to see him the other day after two months, and it had got very much worse. I tried to understand if he wanted something and he asked me to bring  his mother. These days we are doing our utmost to get this boy’s mother to come for Christmas. This child will not live long: he asked me for his mother. I think I shall remember this boy for a long time and I would like to appeal to the institutions to help us do everything possible so that his mother can come and stay close to her child in this last phase of his life.

by Alessandro Gisotti