The Christmas tree in the pediatrics unit of Brandon Regional Hospital shines just as brightly as any other tree.
Adorned with ornaments and twinkling lights, it provides a little holiday cheer to children with an illness during what should be the best time of year to be a child.
Certified child-life specialist Catherine Parker is determined to amplify that holiday cheer for every patient in the pediatric and pediatric intensive care units this holiday season.
Parker, whose position was added last year as a part of CEO Bland Eng's larger goal to build up the pediatrics unit at the HCA West Florida hospital, decided the children fighting illness on Christmas Day deserve a little something special.
"This year I wanted to do something specific because all of our staff members kept asking, 'what can I do?' " Parker said. "So I came up with the idea of seasonal stocking stuffers. That way, it's across the board for everyone and everybody gets to enjoy, even the ones that don't celebrate Christmas."
Though most of the donations come primarily from hospital staff members, marketing and public relations director Patty Montgomery has received phone calls from former patients' families and various community members who want to help.
"Our H2U group, which is our senior group connected to the hospital, they have their Christmas luncheon every year and they bring in toys, and they donate the toys to pediatrics," Montgomery said. "We get donations from outside and internally. We're very grateful to those people. It's very nice to get those kinds of calls."
Because they typically don't treat children with long-term conditions, it's impossible to know the specific interests or ages of the children who will be in the pediatrics unit.
"We have everything from little toiletry kits for girls with snow globes, somebody brought in Lightning cups and Buccaneers T-shirts, and stuff like that so we can make something," Parker said. "It's not going to be ideal where every teenager wants a phone you know? We're not going to give them a phone but it's something for them to do while they're here."
Parker, who is currently the only certified child-life specialist on staff at the hospital, serves pediatrics, the pediatric intensive care unit, consults to the ER occasionally as well as radiology. She left her life in Louisiana and career at Tulane Medical Center to join the Brandon Regional staff and build her position from the ground up.
"It's a learning experience," Parker said. "I learn something new from our staff members and from each kid that I work with."
Although her job is medically based, Parker says her goal is to teach the children and families about their medical procedures and make them as comfortable as possible about their hospital stay, whether it's through dancing, singing or helping them cope through medical play.
"What Catherine did is very important," Montgomery said. "So when she came on board I thought this is just going to be great because kids just get scared and don't know what's going on."
And certainly being Santa's helper to the children staying in the hospital doesn't hurt either.
"We want to make them happy and give them something special this year," Parker said.
Contact Kelsey Sunderland at email@example.com.