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Jacob Boucher, 7, a patient at SickKids hospital and his mother Nicole Boucher visit with Santa during his stop at the SickKids Hospital in Toronto on Dec. 20.The Globe and Mail

This year, hundreds of children – and their families – will be spending the holiday season in hospitals across the country. It’s a difficult, often devastating, reality. But health care professionals at pediatric facilities have made it their mission to bring the magic of the season to even their tiniest patients.

“We recreate those holiday experiences,” said Mary MacKillop, director of patient experience at BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver. “We will be at capacity over the holidays.”

The goal of the hospital’s holiday activities is to facilitate moments, such as room decorating, getting a visit with Santa Claus or even enjoying a special treat from the kitchen, that are reminiscent of experiences families would have if they were at home, Ms. MacKillop said.

One little boy who has been at the hospital for seven months while undergoing treatment for cancer has been having a difficult time. But when he heard that Santa was coming to visit, he was filled with excitement, Ms. MacKillop said.

“He was excited to see Santa, he was excited to think about his Christmas letter and what he was wishing for,” she said. “A small thing like a Santa’s visit completely rejuvenated a little one who, for seven months, has been living a complex care experience.”

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Erica and Brett Morrison with their newborn Jeffrey, at SickKids Hospital's neonatal unit in Toronto. Jeffrey was born at 24 weeks and will have to spend a few more months in hospital.Diogenes Baena/Diogenes Baena/The Hospital for Sick Children

The hospital’s commitment to bringing some normalcy to the holidays extends to shopping. The hospital has created a makeshift toy store, filled with donations, that parents can use to shop – at no cost – for their children.

“The last thing our families need to be worrying about is how will I possibly get gifts for my children,” Ms. MacKillop said.

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She added that the hospital works with community partners to bring elements of Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Christmas or any other celebration to the facility.

At the Montreal Children’s Hospital, there has been an entire month of themed events, including a holiday party featuring face painting and ornament decorating, a toy fair and the chance for all patients to take a picture with Santa Claus.

“These are special moments,” said Sabrina Drudi, professional co-ordinator of the hospital’s child life department. “Even though they can’t be at home, for them to be able to participate in these holiday activities, it brings joy and hope in challenging times.”

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Sukhman Marok, 7, a patient at SickKids hospital, visits with Santa on Dec. 20.Jennifer Roberts/The Globe and Mail

The hospital will also be giving out approximately 300 pairs of holiday pyjamas to patients and hosting a PJ party that will feature pillowcase decorating and other festive fun.

Because many families end up being separated during a child’s hospital stay, as caregivers often have to juggle caring for other children at home, the hospital is holding a Christmas Eve brunch where all family members can be together.

When the pediatric patients wake up on Christmas morning, they will know Santa has come because their nurse will deliver a special present from him.

Many of the families spending the holidays at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children are far from their homes, which can make a difficult situation even more challenging over the holidays, said Chris Tomlinson, medical director of the neonatal intensive care unit.

“They’re separated from their own families. It’s a very trying time, it’s very stressful,” he said. “We’re here to help families through that.”

Erica and Brett Morrison didn’t think they would be spending the holiday season in the hospital with their son, given that he wasn’t expected to arrive until February.

But Jeffrey Morrison – or Big Jeff, as he’s known at SickKids – had other plans. On an early November evening, Ms. Morrison went to her local hospital in Peterborough, Ont., after experiencing some spotting and other concerning symptoms. The doctor informed her that, at 24 weeks pregnant, she was in labour and would need to be airlifted to Toronto. Baby Jeff was born Nov. 8 and soon transferred to SickKids, where he will remain for a few more months before he is ready to go home.

For the Morrisons, it’s been a difficult and overwhelming time. But they said support from family and friends, as well as the hospital staff, have made the journey easier, especially at this time of year.

“We really just have to accept that this year was going to be really different for us,” Ms. Morrison said.

She and her husband plan on driving home for a holiday lunch with family this week. While Jeff will remain in the neonatal intensive-care unit, Ms. Morrison said they will still be able to show him off to family members through a web camera set up in his room.

Jeff even got to have his first picture with Santa this year, thanks to a visit set up by the staff at SickKids. Ms. Morrison said Santa, a long-time hospital volunteer, even shared his experience of having a premature child.

Mr. Morrison said he’s grateful for the dedication of hospital staff who also miss out on holidays with their families to take care of their patients. He said he’s taking the journey with his son day by day and celebrating each milestone as it comes.

SickKids goes all out during the holiday season, including Hanukkah and Christmas room-decorating kits, crafts and mailboxes for children to send their letters to Santa.

“No one plans to be at hospital at Christmas,” Dr. Tomlinson said. “We try to make it the best for them and their families.”

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