Christmas spirit fills children's ward at Whittier Hospital Medical Center

Walking through the pediatric sub-acute care ward at Whittier Hospital Medical Center can bring tears to your eyes.

As you see the suffering of all the boys and girls in the unit, your realize that the hospital is their home.

"Some of our kids are so fragile, they can't even be put in wheelchairs," said nurse Reinali Zabalerio, director of the special ward at Whittier Hospital. "Most of our kids are tracheotomy- dependent, or ventilator-dependent."

All the kids are feeding tube-dependent, she said.

The children at the hospital celebrated Christmas on Friday with a Santa Claus, gifts, decorations, families and staff dressed Christmas outfits.

But not far behind the holiday glitter, it was easy to see that this is a place that runs on giving, dedication, caring and love -- not just on Christmas but every day of the year.

The 20 children on the ward live here and require 24-hour care. They come from all over California: Long Beach, Whittier, Los Angeles County, the San Gabriel Valley, Orange County and San Diego.

They live amid the hubbub of the hospital ward, the omnipresent sound of monitors buzzing and alarms sounding, the doctors, nurses, therapists, attendants and high-tech medical equipment everywhere.

A.J., or Arturo Junior, couldn't stop smiling, or sit still on his grandfather's knee. He kept trying to break free of his grandfather's gentle hold and run free like the other children, siblings of some of the patients, who were visiting.

But A.J., 3, of La Habra, can't walk.

His grandfather sat on his knees, crawling after A.J. and holding him so A.J. could simulate walking.

The unit takes kids from infancy to 21 years old. They are there for a variety of problems, such as traumatic brain injury, near-drowning, or neuro-muscular disorders.

Although some of the children can leave the hospital for special education classes or to attend special events, like a Disney on Ice performance donated by one of the doctors, some cannot.

All but one of the children are non-verbal.

"Trying to figure out the needs of the kids is very difficult, because they can't say, 'Oh, I'm in pain,' or 'Oh, I'm sad,' or 'Oh, I need to be changed,' or 'Oh, I'm hungry,'" said Zabalerio.

"So nurses have to be sensitive to their needs," she said. "We don't want our kids to suffer any more than they are, so we're very sensitive to taking care of their needs."

Lying mouth wide open in a special wheelchair, Bryant, 14, of Whittier, was very happy, excited and smiling.

A resident of the unit for more than 10 years, he is a success story. He graduated from Leffingwell Elementary School and now is enrolled in La Serna High School.

He has hyperplasia of the gums, or swelling, a side-effect of the heavy drugs he takes to prevent seizures.

"A lot of the kids are on pretty heavy drugs to prevent seizures and other things that pertain to muscle spasms," said Zabalerio. "If they didn't have it, they'd be going through neuro storms every day."

Rick Castro, chief executive of the hospital, notes that the unit has been ranked by U.S. News and World Report as one of the best in the state three years in a row.

"For all of the families involved, this is a very difficult thing," he said. "But if I were in their shoes, there would not be a better place to be.

"You can't walk through the doors without feeling the love and the compassion the staff bring to the patients every single day."

Some of the children have dedicated families who visit often. Others have families who are poor and can't afford cars.

Others have been abandoned by their families.

"We become their families," said Zabalerio. "There's no greater advocacy, especially for children who can't speak."

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