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Caring for the Whole Family

Kelly Salance

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It’s the middle of a freezing winter night, and your child is sick—desperately so. Panicked, you jump into the back of the ambulance, forgetting your coat and your wallet. But you’re not thinking about those things; your focus is on getting your child the help she needs.

That help can be found at pediatric intensive care units around the United Kingdom, such as the one located at St. Mary’s Hospital in London’s Paddington district. Founded in 1992 by Dr. Parviz Habibi, PICU began with a single bed but now treats approximately 400 critically ill children each year. For more than two decades, the unit has grown thanks to its associated charity, COSMIC, which has raised more than a million pounds for new equipment, as well as £500,000 toward research of childhood maladies ranging from meningitis to Kawasaki disease.


In the United Kingdom, demand for beds in pediatric intensive care units often outstrips supply, which means parents frequently have to travel long distances—sometimes from as far away as Scotland—to get the care their children need, says Vicky Rees, COSMIC’s head of fundraising and communications. In 2017 PICU had to turn away 200 children due to lack of beds, but COSMIC—with help from Zendesk and other patrons such as Sir Richard Branson—has been working toward adding between eight and 15 beds starting in January 2019, with plans for a large family area so anxious parents can rest comfortably while their son or daughter gets critical care.

“We try to provide holistic care for the families,” Rees says. “We’ve been putting parents up in local hotels and Airbnbs so they’re within walking distances.”

Although the expansion will help the unit meet the demand for care, it will place even greater pressure on family housing. That means COSMIC has been forced to reimagine how it supports patients’ families. Local hotels don’t provide the environment many families need during a stressful time, says Rees, who is part of a small staff consisting of Charity Director Chloë Oliver, Fundraising and Communications Executive Emily Hughes, and Fundraising Assistant George Lee.

The idea is to create a home-away-from-home, with communal family areas, kitchens, and laundry facilities, that is attached to the ward itself. Considering that the average family stays for six days—and sometimes as long as 18 months—having a place that feels like home can make a huge difference.

“We want rooms that feel like proper bedrooms, with phones that connect directly to hospital rooms,” says Rees, who points out that half of the families end up suffering from PTSD or need bereavement assistance. “Being able to talk with other parents in shared facilities, being able to make a cup of tea—those small things make it a little more bearable for families.”

The project will be divided into three phases, with an emphasis on not disrupting care for children in any way; as part of that effort, PICU will be refurbishing an adjacent ward followed by a second area. Besides needing more beds, PICU simply requires more space for physicians to work and to store the vital medical equipment the charity has acquired over the years.

Some of that medical equipment (ventilators, medicine pumps, and more) comes care of Zendesk, which entered COSMIC’s orbit five years ago when the company opened an office in the Paddington area.

“They wanted to give back,” Rees says. “They helped produce a booklet for parents with PTSD and helped us fund countless numbers of hotel rooms and contributed to the costs of the new units. The help has been incredible.”


That help includes lending a hand at COSMIC’s children’s Christmas party. While wrapping presents for the children has become a Zendesk tradition, some, like enterprise account manager James Marlow, go a step further by skydiving or running marathons to raise funds.

“COSMIC is quite close to my heart, as I have children and three of them were premature babies, so I know what it’s like to need specialist support from a hospital,” Marlow says. “I have attended their Christmas concert four years in a row and helped set up, sell raffle tickets, and dressed up as Santa Claus to give out presents to the kids.”

As a charity with a limited number of staff, being able to lean on patrons such as Zendesk can make a challenging job easier to manage, Rees says. “It’s the little things,” she says. “For example, we once asked, ‘Do you have anyone who can build a chair?’ The answer was, ‘Of course we do, we’ll send someone over.’”