Charity director, Suzanne Mainwaring has been a part of the Noah’s Ark story since day one. To commemorate our landmark birthday, she looks back over the last 21 years and talks about the charity’s plans for the future. A future that for Suzanne personally, includes running her first marathon in aid of Noah’s Ark!
‘The rooms are cold in the winter, boiling in summer and the huge windows give no privacy at all. It is essentially a goldfish bowl for the patients in isolation.’
‘There is only one shower for all the parents to share; some tell me that they must shower at 4am to ensure they get to use it. No other facilities, no parent lounge or kitchen, no way to be comfortable staying at their child’s bedside – often for months.’
‘The roof leaks when it rains, buckets catch the water.’
‘Children must be wheeled on their beds through long, busy, corridors as they are taken for surgery in the main hospital. Their anxiety not eased one bit by this very public journey.’
These are just some of the words that I uttered so many times as I showed prospective donors the need for a fit-for-purpose, children’s hospital. That was 21 years ago, but I vividly remember how crowded everything was, the dormitory style wards were noisy, there was no space, the distress of anyone clearly visible to others and how desperately something better was needed.
Once people understood that the only way to make the dream a reality, was to follow the route taken by other children’s hospitals across the UK, they wanted to help. The route would be a large fundraising appeal to raise the money to build the first phase of the hospital and demonstrate the groundswell of public support for the future phase to those in government. The Trustees and I worked well together – supported then by only one amazing member of staff and volunteers, some still with us today.
The multi-million-pound appeal was incredible. We staged huge events such as two walks with Ian Botham where thousands of people including so many school children lined the entire route and people crammed the streets of Cardiff to witness the end of the first walk with our Patrons Catherine Zeta Jones and Charlotte Church. We were so lucky to have that celebrity support in those early years. The media (traditional offline in those days) were also very supportive, with newspapers and radio stations partnering us to raise large sums of money and featuring our stories on a regular basis.
There are many wonderful memories – Dame Shirley Bassey bringing the house down at our gala ball with an impromptu performance of Hey Big Spender and so many wonderful people to remember from across Wales and beyond. We had everything from children sending in the contents of their money boxes to six figure sums from individuals, companies and grant making trusts. We met so many amazing people across the country and many families and patients who helped us. We cried buckets of tears so many times; some patient stories still come to my mind, as does the wonder I often felt as the medical teams seemingly achieved miracles. The behind-the-scenes stories about how much the staff cared about their patients, how they went above and beyond…as they do today. It was a whirlwind five years and I will always be truly grateful to every single person who supported us.
When asked by a reporter how I felt, when the doors to phase one (cancer and medical wards) opened to the first patient in May 2005, I remember saying that it was a day of mixed emotion. Sadness that children who came to the hospital would need specialist medical attention but great joy that they would have the best facilities at that time. A purpose-built, specialist hospital built around the needs of the children and their families.
Today, the hospital continues to evolve. Phase two containing the surgical theatres, the hydrotherapy pool and the MRI suite and much more all opened in 2015. The capital build was funded by the government but a further £8M was raised by the charity to provide virtually everything that was not bricks.
And as the hospital evolves, we as a charity have too. We continue to fund major developments though big appeals like Tiny Lives, which raised £1million for the new neonatal unit. With your continued support, we’re also still able to fund state-of the art pieces of medical equipment that improve experiences and outcomes for children. But, as we’re also in a position to witness the day to day of the hospital, we now know how vital supporting families through their hospital journey is too. It’s why we fund the work of the much loved play team, raised money for an emotional support service for NICU families and provide ‘essentials packs’ for parents admitted in an emergency. It’s also why we set up our Sparkle Fund in 2019 – to help provide little moments of happiness for children during long stays.
2020 was a tough year for everyone and as a charity, we adapted to give support where it was needed. Setting up and running a food bank for parents and helping children isolated from family to keep in touch through technology were just two of the ways we were able help. We showed our appreciation of the amazing hospital staff by responding quickly to any requests for help as they adapted to caring in a crisis and boosted their morale with little tokens of appreciation where we could. We funded the play specialist team for the seventh year, and launched a successful appeal to fund more non-invasive ventilators to help the critical care unit through busy winter months.
The hospital will always need the support of the charity and we will evolve together to meet the needs of its patients. It is still a tough time right now and some of our major plans have been temporarily paused while the hospital focuses on managing the present and we help them in whatever way needed.
We are looking forward to restarting our jungle ward redevelopment that will provide brilliant facilities for patients in neurorehabilitation, those admitted in mental health crisis and patients with long-term complex needs.
We are looking forward to exploring new capital developments and community-based services. We look forward to funding innovation in health care and enabling research to help generations to come. We look forward to supporting the hospital staff and their wellbeing and giving them the best tools to do their work. We look forward to helping reduce anxiety for patients and their families through expanded emotional support.. We are looking forward to Nico, the therapy dog returning for his ward rounds! I can only wish I were looking forward to running my first marathon for the Noah’s Ark Charity later this year with quite the same enthusiasm!
We know that you care for the children and families of Noah’s Ark. You cared while the hospital was just a drawing, as it continued to evolve and grow and as we as a charity expanded to support NICU families. You even carried on caring through this pandemic, when you faced many additional challenges of your own, and for that we are especially grateful. It’s only by caring together that the last 21 years has been possible. Here’s to the next 21!