'We make a difference and I know that': Jack and Jill nurses 'especially busy' this month providing care for 50 families in Cork

Nurses have been supporting families to also spend time with their other children over the Christmas period 
'We make a difference and I know that': Jack and Jill nurses 'especially busy' this month providing care for 50 families in Cork

Marie Bowen with Leah Forde (age 8) from Turners Cross.

THE next few weeks will be a quiet time spent at home for many but for the Jack and Jill children’s nurses that serve Cork’s communities, it was right back to work after Christmas Day.

The Jack and Jill Children’s Foundation was set up in 1997 by the parents of a young boy with brain trauma who sadly passed away at 22 months. 

Despite there being no support for them outside of hospitals at the time, Jonathan Irwin and Mary Ann O’Brien cobbled together a homecare plan for their son with the help of some local nurses.

Since then, the charity they subsequently set up has become the pathway from hospital to homecare for seriously ill children in Ireland.

In county Cork, around 50 families currently utilise the service, many of whom have children under the age of six with neurological conditions.

Built on trust 

"People feel more pressure at Christmas so we've been especially busy this month. It’s absolutely crazy”, says Eilín Ní Mhurchú, Jack and Jill's liaison nurse manager for Cork.

Eilín, who has been a nurse for over 30 years, originally trained as a paediatric nurse and has worked with the foundation for 17 years.
Eilín, who has been a nurse for over 30 years, originally trained as a paediatric nurse and has worked with the foundation for 17 years.

Eilín, who has been a nurse for over 30 years, originally trained as a paediatric nurse and has worked with the foundation for 17 years. Through her work, she currently supports 44 families in Cork, lending an ear and organising nurses to visit their homes to administer care.

"I visit the families and offer them a lot of emotional support and listen to their stories," she says.

"The families that we support really feel very isolated. They have very vulnerable children and that worry has been doubled because of Covid."

Eilín is originally from Cork but had been working in the ICU in Temple Street Children’s Hospital before she moved back to Blackrock with her husband and started with the Jack and Jill foundation. In 2004, she switched from her work as a respite nurse and took on her current role, which can be tiring.

"All of my days are different. You never get bored. I cover from Carrigtwohill to Eyries to Mallow and then Fermoy, Mitchelstown, and Cork City,” she says.

“I try to organise my day to visit families in areas closer together but you have to be flexible. If a child is nearing the end of their life or is really sick I drop everything. I don’t find it stressful though, I’m just used to it.”

While she has many families to juggle, Eilín says that no two are the same. Some children may have conditions like epilepsy or issues swallowing. Many don’t sleep well which leads to exhaustion for already worried parents.

“I find that families initially need a lot of support. They’re devastated by a terrible diagnosis, they’re feeling a terrible sense of loss, maybe all their dreams for their baby are gone. So I would visit them quite a lot and try to reassure them that what they're feeling is okay,” she says.

“There’s no point saying it’ll be alright because it won’t. We can’t fix any of it, but we can try to make it a little bit easier.

“I really feel honoured to have the time to spend with these families and earn their trust. We make a difference and I know that. I feel it every day.” 

Part of the family 

Like Eilín, Niamh Humphries also trained in Dublin and has spent over a decade helping families around Cork through her work with the foundation. Niamh is a respite nurse who goes into people’s homes to provide hands-on care to children with varying conditions.

She currently works with three different families in the county and like many of the other nurses involved, has to balance her workday with her own family's needs.

"I'll drop my own boys to school and then I'll head to one of the children I work with. You get a report from the parent and they tell you how the child has been since you were last in and you check their medications," Niamh says.

"It's quite intensive nursing. None of the three children that I have now can swallow and they're on a lot of medications.

"But overall, you're there to give parents a break. Even if that break is to just wash their hair or go to bed.” 

Though Niamh loves her job and raves about how smoothly the foundation runs, she says that it’s not for everybody.

"It's very emotive. It really pulls at your heartstrings and it can be draining. You're in people's homes seeing them at their most vulnerable. They could be up every single night,” she says.

“They put on a show and tell others they're fine but not us, which makes it so special. You become part of the family. In hospital care, you say goodbye to the child and that’s it but with this, you get to know people and they open up. It’s just such a rewarding job.” 

Supporting families over Christmas 

Niamh's favourite part in the lead-up to Christmas was letting parents spend valuable time with their other children.

"Parents have precious time with their other children, whose kitchens may have been turned into mini-hospitals,” she says. “When we're there they can take them out to see the Christmas lights or buy them a little treat.” 

The toughest is taking care of a child towards the end of their life.

Niamh Humphries has spent over a decade helping families around Cork through her work with the foundation.
Niamh Humphries has spent over a decade helping families around Cork through her work with the foundation.

“A lot of these children don’t survive and that’s the hardest part. Sometimes Eilín might get a call where the child is palliative and we go take care of them in the final few days,” Niamh says.

“But that is incredibly special. I feel privileged to be able to take even a tiny bit of burden off a family.” 

Marie Bowen, who has spent years working in a community setting, also works as a homecare nurse for Jack and Jill in Cork. From providing medical care to simply helping a parent empty their dishwasher, she says that she feels honoured to help families in any way.

"You have to be very mindful and very respectful of each house that you go into. At the end of the day, the parents are the experts in their child's care and in paediatrics, you’re dealing with the whole family, not just the child," Marie says.

"For me, if they've gotten to the point where they feel comfortable enough to leave their child with me so they can go out and do the grocery shop or whatever it may be, that's a job well done."

Like Niamh, she also tries to provide opportunities for parents to spend time with their other children.

"Siblings of a child who needs extra care often miss out on things. Their sibling could end up in hospital around Christmas or anything like that and it can be quite hard," she says.

"I've been staying in late for one of my families so that they can go out with their other child and do nice Christmas things like seeing the lights or going for dinner.

“It really comes down to the small things that the rest of us take for granted, and that’s the beauty of Jack and Jill."

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