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Project Hope creator Jane Watson, second from right, and her extended family prepare their annual Christmas Eve delivery for St. Joseph's Health Centre, on Dec. 22, 2019.

Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

For the 16th year in a row, Jane Watson and her family will spend Christmas Eve morning hand-delivering gifts to as many patients as they can at Toronto’s St. Joseph’s Health Centre.

This year’s presents will be stuffed pandas, 450 of them, each one adorned with a ribbon and a tag that reads: “Project Hope.”

Hope is what Ms. Watson aims to bring to people stuck in the hospital over the holidays, which is why, as she and her cart full of bears move from room to room, she won’t tell patients what inspired the annual tradition in the first place.

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“When somebody hears of an infant dying," Ms. Watson said, "the reaction is sadness. That’s absolutely not the purpose or the intent of our visit.”

Ms. Watson brought Project Hope to St. Joseph’s as a way to pay forward the kindness that the hospital’s staff showed her and her husband, Ian Watson, on the night their son, William Thomas, died suddenly when he was only six weeks old.

The baby boy, who went by Thomas, was born with a congenital heart defect on May 30, 1997. He underwent one heart surgery shortly after birth, and was slated to have two more before his second birthday.

Despite his precarious start, Thomas’s prognosis seemed positive. The day before he died, on July 9, 1997, the family had a “terrific day” of appointments at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, Ms. Watson, a career consultant, recalled in a recent interview at her Etobicoke home.

“We even ran into the heart surgeon,” she said. “They were thrilled. [Thomas] was gaining weight, he was growing, he looked healthy.”

The next night, while she was giving Thomas his last feed of the evening, Ms. Watson saw her son take a sudden turn for the worse. She let fly with an “awful scream."

Paramedics whisked Thomas to St. Joseph’s, in Toronto’s west end. A neighbour drove the couple to the hospital, while extended family watched over Thomas’s big sister, two-year-old Sarah.

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A nurse met the Watsons at the emergency-room door and led them to a quiet room, where they learned that Thomas had died.

“We asked if we could see him," Ms. Watson said. "We went in and the nurses and the doctors, they were right there with us. Oh my gosh, the compassion was incredible. One nurse, I remember, just cried right along with us and never left our side.”

One of the paramedics asked if he could speak to the couple. “We said, ‘Yes, of course,’" Ms. Watson said. "He just wanted to convey their condolences on behalf of both [ambulance] units. This sort of event must be very tough on them – I can’t even imagine.”

In the years that followed Thomas’s death, Ms. Watson and her husband were consumed with grief and with the demands of raising a young family. Daughter Kelly was born a year after Thomas died.

This year’s presents will be stuffed pandas, 450 of them, each one adorned with a ribbon and a tag that reads: 'Project Hope.'

Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

But as time passed, the family sought a way to honour the memory of their son, while also showing their gratitude to the staff at St. Joseph’s hospital and spreading cheer to others.

A friend of Ms. Watson’s who had started a similar project at another hospital suggested Ms. Watson offer to buy small Christmas presents for patients at St. Joseph’s.

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Since then, the annual tradition has grown. A choir accompanies Ms. and Mr. Watson and their daughters, now 24 and 21, and a few extended family members as they make their deliveries to all the patients well enough to receive visitors.

Some accept the stuffed animals quietly. Some ask for a chat. Ms. Watson remembers one burly man dissolving into tears as he accepted his stuffed animal. Others have said the Watson family’s modest gift was the only present they expected to received that Christmas.

Alla Agisheva, a nurse in the hospital’s inpatient mental-health unit, was on shift when the Watson family came to deliver their gifts two years ago.

“It was absolutely beautiful,” Ms. Agisheva recalled. Some of her patients, having struggled with mental-health issues for years, don’t get many visitors, she said. “So what happened was, people who don’t get gifts or don’t get to spend time with family, they still got to feel like part of a family.”

Over at the hospital’s neo-natal intensive-care unit, Project Hope’s bears are delivered with a Santa-inspired twist. Nurses collect them and add them to stockings stuffed with little gifts, each hung with care on the infants’ clear plastic isolettes at midnight on Christmas Eve.

“I think these little bears are probably cherished for the rest of these children’s lives,” said Alie Drabble, patient care manager of St. Joseph’s NICU and pediatric department.

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For Ms. Watson, who lost Thomas when he was not much bigger than the infants in the NICU, Project Hope has helped give meaning to her son’s short life.

“It’s the only gift I need,” Ms. Watson said.

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