Unit so very, Berry good

children's unit: The first patient on the new children's ward at Blackpool Victoria Hospital, Finley Jackson, with dad Stephen, mum Madison, Dr Peter Curtis and Matron Diane Stewart.
children's unit: The first patient on the new children's ward at Blackpool Victoria Hospital, Finley Jackson, with dad Stephen, mum Madison, Dr Peter Curtis and Matron Diane Stewart.
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The official opening of the new £13.5m Children’s Unit isn’t until March, and fingers crossed some friendly celebrity will do the honours, but the real VIPs are already passing through the wards. As in very important patients.

Youngsters know why it was so crucial to secure the cash for the transformation of children’s facilities at Blackpool Victoria Hospital. “It’s nice, not scary here,” says Elsie May Miller, six, there with mum Tracy. “I’d just like more yellow.”

The old Berry Ward, notable for its spartan sterility of the 1930s, has been closed in favour of children’s services in one central location.

Thomas the Tank Engine remains on guard outside Berry, off the main corridor, a landmark for patients and visitors heading elsewhere rather than there.

But step within the new children’s unit, and you can be forgiven for wondering if you need the kind of wristband you get at the Pleasure Beach, rather than as an in-patient.

The reception fronts play facilities unrivalled by any other North West hospital.

Soft play areas, kiddies’ kitchen kitted out with pots and pans, a separate sensory room, and other equipment, all in bright primary colours to lift the spirits.

Before any quibble the cost of non-clinical care, this is a facility for children of all ages, illnesses, conditions, abilities and disabilities.

Half the battle, says Dr Peter Curtis, clinical director for child health, rests in winning their confidence.

“Provide this sort of atmosphere and they feel safe and secure,” he adds. “Berry Ward, with the best will in the world, was bleak.”

Sister Caroline Kitchen, a Berry veteran, agrees: “It’s fantastic. Kids come here in trepidation and leave it at the door. No fear, no anxiety. It makes our job easier.”

It is all thanks to three men, whose generosity is commemorated by plaques within reception. In 2007, Out Rawcliffe farmhand Peter Roy Evans, a Barnardo’s boy, left £212,000 on his death to help kids.

But well-advanced plans to create the all-purpose unit by converting existing buildings were put on hold last year after swingeing NHS budget cuts.

Consultant paediatrician Nigel Laycock admits: “We were at our wits’ end. Everything we had worked for looked to be lost. It was heartbreaking.”

The unit was sensationally saved last summer after a £4m windfall from Carleton dairy farming brothers Frank and James Hargreaves, who lived frugally in a dilapidated farmhouse with no indoor toilet or central heating – their final gesture of generosity.

Both in their 1980s, James died in 2007, Frank in 2009, their estate left to help sick children. The legacy was split between the League of Friends – who raise funds for the Vic – and Brian House children’s hospice.

Keri Graham, projects manager, says £1.3m of the £2m needed to redevelop units to provide new children’s wards came from the League of Friends.

The league themselves say their annual turnover is £1.5m, and outlay just £2,000.

“What we see here is a far cry from our old shopping list for the Vic,” admits Larry O’Hara, league chairman, touring the unit with treasurer Lys Hicks. “We’ve virtually funded the bulk of the £2.5m conversion.”

The league donated £1.6m for building costs and equipment thanks to the legacies, and a further £210,000 for playroom and dining area.

“Without their generosity, the unit wouldn’t have happened at this time,” adds Dr Curtis.

Medics have moved in, nurses sit at stations that look like pirate ships, the “best bit” says Dr Laycock, who’s helped out with the design for five years. “We want to de-clinicise the atmosphere, make it more child-friendly.”

Attention to detail extends to clinical care, cubicles, ceiling hoists, wet rooms, aids, provision of children’s adolescent and high dependency facilities, sleepover beds for parents, even teacher Laura O’Rourke on hand to assist with lessons for longer stayers.

Multi-media centres contain TVs and game consoles to the delight of patient Beth Malan, 15, who says “more games please”.

Beth was getting stir crazy on Berry Ward. “No privacy, no place to chat. I was first here. It’s brilliant.”

One-year-old Finley Jackson, from Thornton, was first on the children’s ward. Mum Madison says: “Finley has spent a large amount of time in hospital since he was born, and this is a massive improvement on before. It’s much nicer for us all.”

There’s more to come, including a covered bridge and official opening in March.

Matron Diane Stewart, former children’s services inspector for the Care Commission, worked here as a nurse 13 years ago.

She says: “I can’t believe the transformation. It’s the best in the North West, I’m sure.”

The last word goes to Freya Mason, five, newly diagnosed with type one diabetes, now happily colouring in on the end of her bed in the new ward.

“I was scared, but now I’m excited. I didn’t expect it to be so nice here.” Mum Cheryl agrees. “It takes some of the edge off the worry.”