Families of Hospitalized Kids are “Almost Home” in Kingston, Ontario

I’m over here, across the pond, and I just had to share with you back home in Israel, a most amazing Canadian experience.

Your child is hospitalized and you live far from town and have no family or friends who can put you up nearby. What do you do? If you’re like a lot of people, you sleep on a chair beside your child’s bed, and if you are lucky the chair opens up into a semi-cot. But what if your kid is in isolation, or a preemie in the preemie ward? You would sleep on the floor in the halls or on a chair in a visitors’ room or the odd corner, wherever you could find a spot to rest your worrying bones.

If you happen to be in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, you can stay at “Almost Home”. I don’t know what my daughter would have done without this place. She gave birth to two sweet preemie girls and after three days she was released from the hospital but, of course the twins were not. Home for her is almost a 2-hour drive away. A social worker at the hospital arranged for her to get a room at Almost Home.

almost home entry sign

Being a mere $5-taxi ride from Kingston General Hospital (KGH) or a 15 or 20 minute walk, means that you are always near your child, even as you sleep somewhat soundly in a real bed at night.

nurses residence Almost Home
Old rurses’ residence, one of the earliest in Canada, and where families were originally put up when they lived far from the hospital.

Almost Home was established about 23 years ago: An old, unused nurses’ residence alongside the hospital provided a rest spot for doctors working the long hours and often sequential on-call shifts that seem to characterize the early careers of young doctors and interns. Nurses, who took note of the stress and strain affecting parents of hospitalized children who did not live near Kingston, began to send parents to the old nurses’ residence to spend the night and freshen up.
One night, a piece of plaster fell from the roof of the un-maintained building onto one of the mothers; luckily nobody was injured, but that was a sign that something more fitting had to be provided for the families of hospitalized children. The local Holiday Inn volunteered rooms when these were available, but this was not a solution to the problem.

Elizabeth Schumaker (1941-2013), a social worker in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at KGH, and Wayne Greenway, Child Life Specialist at nearby Hotel Dieu Hospital, were in agreement about the need for a place for families. In 2012, Schumaker wrote that Wayne:

wisely foresaw the challenges of sibling jealousy and increased demands for parental attention. He felt it was essential for all members of the family to bond with the new baby before discharge.

A needs study was conducted by a team at Queen’s University in Kingston. It confirmed the importance for a place to stay and for support services

if we wanted to prevent family breakdown and developmental harm to [hospitalized] children and their siblings.

A board was put together comprising members of the community in Kingston who contributed their expertise in the various activities required to make the dream a reality. With the help of the media in Kingston and south-eastern Ontario, fund-raising goals were reached and the current home was purchased. At time of purchase, it served as student housing, and architects, engineers and construction companies donated their services to transform it into the welcoming and warm handicap-accessible home that it is today for those who need to stay here for a day or for months. There is an open reception area, a spacious kitchen with free basic food stuffs and huge refrigerators for residents’ groceries, a dining area, a laundry room where clothing can be washed and dried at no cost, and 11 bedrooms, some en suite.

almost home common room
Common Room at Almost Home

Being a Jew, I was naturally interested in knowing if members of the Jewish community of Kingston contributed to the establishment of Almost Home. Laurie Morgan, Executive Director, pointed to the dedication plaque in the entranceway and said I might see a Jewish name there. I was happy to discover that the local Bnai Brith lodge, the Hadassa Auxiliary, owners of a used furniture business Michael and Margorie Feldman, and the private NGO, the Harry and Ethel Abramsky Charitable Foundation, took part in initial efforts to set up Almost Home; some continue to provide supportive funds to this day. The Jewish community numbers around 200 families affiliated with either the conservative or the reform synagogues.

Curiousity about these Jews led me to talk with Jay Abramsky, great-grandson of Polish immigrant, Joseph Abramsky, one of the first Jews to set up home in Kingston over 100 years ago. With this city having been declared capital of Canada in 1841, Joseph can perhaps be considered part of the “ancient” history of this city. He certainly was a self-made man who made an impact: building himself up from door-to-door shmata salesman to real estate mogul, he eventually owned several properties in downtown Kingston and even in nearby towns. He was a strong believer in engaging in philanthropic activities for the community, a tradition carried on by his descendents and immortalized in the Foundation set up by his grandson, Mort, in the names of his son and daughter-in-law.

almost home kitchen
Kitchen at Almost Home

I don’t know if I can convey the incredible feeling it is to walk into kitchen in the morning and wish other parents a good day for their kids or to come back in the evening and sit around the kitchen table to share stories and compare the kids’ progress. Some of the stories are heartbreaking and you witness the incredible resilience of people, some quite young, dealing with challenges you wonder if you, yourself, would have the strength to handle.

almost home food cupboard
Cupboards are stocked with basic food supplies for everyone free of charge.

When life sometimes throws you a curve ball you don’t think you can catch it, it is quite remarkable to have a place to stay where the staff and volunteers understand the emotional roller-coaster parents of hospitalized kids experience. They go out of their way to make sure the parents are okay and their patience and cheery demeanour have set the tone for all interpersonal interactions here.

The dedication of the Kingston community to ensure continuity of Almost Home, in fact a service that does not benefit them at all, is not to be taken for granted. For sure, organizations in the hinterland, those that actually use the service, also donate funds necessary for running the house so this is, in fact, a regional project.

There are hospitals in Israel with a “melonit” near to them for families when a member of the family is hospitalized. In the case of new mothers, some kupat holim funds will cover part of the cost but for others the cost can be quite formidable. In Almost Home, everyone pays a mere $10 per day for the room regardless of number of inhabitants. When a child is having a series of operations or when you have to keep a preemie in NICU for months, staying here is possible at that cost. I was told that there are special funds available for those who cannot afford even that.

I wrote this article because this is the best way I know for saying “thank-you”. About Home perfectly complements the warm and considerate professional care the nurses and doctors at KGH’s NICU provide for my daughter and her preemie twins. When you don’t have problems, you don’t know a whole other world exists for those who do. Thank goodness there are helpful souls who move in to pad that world and make it manageable.

All photographs are my own.

About the Author
Sheri Oz, owner of www.israeldiaries.com, is a retired family therapist exploring mutual interactions between politics and Israeli society.