Their sunny dispositions, particularly that of the Mauritian Sister, who was no more than four and a half feet tall, was in stark contrast to the torrid existences of those they care for.
The Sisters baked for us, they made tea, and even arranged to have a special mass said for us when we visited. It was a deeply upsetting albeit very humbling experience; days like that are not lightly discarded.
That I was reminded of that experience after attending a meeting held in the Sacred Heart Centre on Lady Lane last Wednesday filled me with shame. Shame? Why shame? Let me explain.
That children, from toddlers up to young adults with complex disabilities and needs are being cared for (albeit exceptionally by dedicated staff) in a such a building, in Ireland in 2016, is utterly shameful. It is a stain on anyone who has been in government for the past 35-plus years.
So should press releases from Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil or Labour on this issue suddenly start landing in my inbox because parents of children attending Sacred Heart are now highlighting this issue, and attempting to do something about this, I’ll be somewhat hesitant to run them.
Granted, I’ll also be taking any statements coming from the opposition on this with a pinch of salt too, because if one chooses to step back from active governance (even if it’s honouring a pre-election promise), how can you hope to get anything of a substantive nature done?
How can you help these children, a great many of whom have no voice of their own through which they can articulate their hopes, their needs, their wants, if you reject the levers of governance?
You can make a passionate speech in the Dáil, you can get all the Facebook ‘likes’ you want on an issue, but what will that materially and tangibly lead to? Words can be powerful, words can be effective, but they can be also incredibly convenient and astonishingly cheap.
Unlike some of the parents I sat with in Sacred Heart last Wednesday, I do not have the weighty burden of daily tube feeding a son or daughter to tend to.
They do it, day in, day out because that’s what loving parents do. They don’t seek glory or acknowledgment for this, but a little more help via the HSE and the State wouldn’t go astray. And their cause needs to be highlighted. Their children deserve better. They, as parents, as carers, as taxpayers, as citizens, deserve better.
I don’t have to face the reality of getting a child with complex needs to Crumlin at 8.30 on a Saturday morning, when there are two other children at home who’ll need a grandparent or a childminder to take care of them.
Standing in the cramped bathrooms of the Sacred Heart Centre on Wednesday night last, I received a timely and reminder of my good fortune. Problems? What problems?
The centre, managed by Mary Lacey Crowe (official title: Clinical Nurse Manager), which, including herself, is composed of 12 staff – two staff nurses, a school nurse, six care assistants, a secretary and a porter. They are doing their very, very best in spite of the facility they have at their disposal. Parents will readily acknowledge that.
But they could do their job a great deal better if they were in a more suitable facility, and if
greater comfort were made available to the children they do so much for.
For example, the corridors leading off the reception area of the centre cannot accommodate two children, side by side, using walking aids.
The toilets open directly onto the centre’s reception area, which also doubles up as a storage area for the children’s buggies and wheelchairs, as there’s nowhere else they can be stored.
The centre building is very much of its time, built in 1974, with the service, established by the Sisters of Charity that same year, taken over by the HSE in 2005.
I understand there’s been no considerable physical addition to the centre’s infrastructure since a playground was installed there in 1996. That’s right: 1996. And it’s worth recalling that on any given week, approximately 50 children are catered for by Mary and her colleagues.
The service’s long-term future clearly lies in a different, altogether more appropriate building; potentially at the promised Primary Care Centre on the grounds of St Otteran’s Hospital.
In the meantime, parents of current and past service users at Sacred Heart are in the early stages of an ambitious €8 million fundraising plan for a new facility.
As Dermot Dooley, husband of Louise and son Darragh (born in 2009, having suffered severe brain damage at birth) put it: “The Centre is doing a fantastic job in enabling children to reach their full potential.
“All that is needed now is a purpose-built building to ensure that the most vulnerable children can indeed avail of their expertise in a building that is equipped to meet their needs.”
Goodwill is something we’ve never lacked in Waterford and I’m sure we can spare some for the children of the Sacred Heart Centre over the next few challenging years.