For our Spotlight on Staff series, fifteen-year-old Libby from Cambridge Children's Network puts some questions to Dr Denise Williams, a retired paediatric oncology doctor who is bringing her expertise to the Cambridge Children's Hospital project. You can watch the video or read the transcription, below.
Tell me a bit about yourself and why you love this job?
A little bit about myself. Well, I to start at the beginning, I trained as a doctor many years ago, worked in a number of different hospitals around the UK and then I moved to Cambridge in the late '80s early '90s, initially to work in the children's department as a doctor and then later to look after children with cancer. A lot of people say "Gosh, that must have been very sad," but actually I don't I didn't see it like that, because most children get better, sadly not all, but I got to know some really amazing children and young people and their parents, often over many many years, and I feel really quite privileged to have have done that. I've had a fantastic career and really enjoyed it. I retired, eventually, about two years ago now, but I've been working on the project before then and on previous iterations of the project. The Children's Hospital's been in the offing for such a long time, so since I've retired I've been doing this and maybe a bit of student teaching, but it's really fun to be part of something that I've always dreamed of happening.
For you, what is the most interesting and exciting part of this project?
Probably the most exciting part is going to be getting it finished but actually there are lots of really really great ideas for this hospital. The most important I think is treating children and young people as whole people. So, currently, if you have a physical health condition, maybe asthma, a broken bone, you're having an operation, you go to Addenbrooke's Hospital. If you're a child or young person with a mental health condition, maybe severe depression or anxiety or an eating disorder, you go to a completely different hospital five miles down the road. But actually they're all children and young people and I really believe strongly that they should be treated as such, and together, because rarely do those problems occur in isolation. So, taking my own specialty, children with cancer quite often have mental health issues as well. They've missed school, they're missing their friends, they're quiet, they depressed, they're lonely, they might be scared of some of the procedures that are being done. All of those things will contribute to difficulty in getting a child through treatment. So, if we treat all children and young people, with any condition, together, then we can make sure that all the staff from both areas are working together to make sure that each child gets the best possible treatment for physical and mental health.
There will be research people working in the children's hospital. We know that we're now in an era where there are new things being discovered all the time, new different treatments, new ways of diagnosing conditions, and we know that hopefully many of those ways of managing a condition will be easier and more successful. So, actually integrating research into our clinical care we hope will, in the future, deliver the best possible outcomes for children.
I hear you're working on the hospital school. Can you tell me about why that's so important?
I feel really strongly that it's vitally important. When children come into hospital they understandably, in many ways, lose all sense of normality. They perhaps lose contact with their friends, with members of their family, with all their schoolwork, and they then enter almost a different world. I think anything we can do to to maintain normality, whether it be access to outdoor space, schooling, is really really important.
The other thing is I think that many children who come into hospital miss so much schooling that when they go back to their home school they feel they've lost so much that they don't belong anymore. They've lost their friendship group, they've lost their way in their work, and it becomes really difficult for them. So actually by having school, providing some normality to every day and then enabling them to integrate back into their their own school, with help from the hospital school, and to ensure that they reach their full potential if at all possible, is really important. We want our children to leave the hospital in the best possible way and to carry on their lives as normally as possible and if they have curtailed their education every time they come into a hospital that's not going to be very easy for them.
Is being outside important to you and do you think it's important for the patients as well?
Yeah absolutely! I could not exist without going outside every day. I don't care what the weather is, whether it's raining, snowing, sunshine, I like to get outside and I think it's really important to be outside to be distracted from what's going on around you, to see some nature, to look at the clouds, it doesn't really matter, but I think it's really important. It helps me stop. It helps me think through problems. It helps me just calm down and then relook at a problem in a completely different way. And I think for patients it must be the same. They're in a strange environment, they're not mixing with their friends, they're not at school, they're not doing all the normal things in life, but actually being outside is normal at home, whether it's playing in the garden or walking to school or doing school sports, so integrating a bit of outside space and outside activities [into the children's hospital] I think is really key to healthy living.
Were you in hospital when you were a child and what were your memories of that?
Oh yes, I was, just once. I think I was about six years old and I went in to have an operation. I have lots of memories of it, none of them very pleasant, I'm afraid. It was many years ago and things have moved on a lot since then, but I remember being quite scared, quite lonely. My parents weren't allowed to stay with me, visiting hours were quite restricted, so they were allowed in a little bit in the afternoon and very early evening. There was very little in the way of toys and play stuff around and I can remember being really lonely at night when it was dark with nobody to talk to and nobody really seeming to see me as a person. And I remember feeling really sad one day when I thought I was going home and then I was told that I had to stay another night, so not a great experience.
I'm really pleased that things have moved on a lot since then and that children can have free visiting and parents staying with them and that there are lots of activities thought about while you're in hospital as a distraction. Long overdue, for me!
And finally, how could you make the hospital special for families and visitors?
We've really wanted it to make it a special place. What's happened is that we've been able to engage with some fantastic children and young people and their parents and talk to them about their experiences in hospital, what went well, what didn't go well, what would have made their stay easier. I would hope, having listened to a lot of the engagement work, that what it will be is a welcoming place. It'll be light and airy. There'll be a feeling of space. There will also be a feeling of privacy which at the moment is sadly lacking.
Hopefully it'll be easy to find your way around so that it's not a scary place. You know exactly how to get from A to B. At any one time in the hospital there will be a whole range of children with differing problems and with differing needs and actually making sure that the hospital works for everybody is vital. So play equipment that can be used for children with disability, access in and out of the hospital, easy signage, all of these things, so that whatever the child's problem is they can feel that they're part of the children's hospital and that we've thought about them and we want to include them.