When the Duchess came to Rainbow Place

The art room at Rainbow Place is buzzing. The Duchess of Cambridge is minutes away and five children are making boxes from paper mache, which they fill with tiny stones. Rough stones represent tough stuff; smooth, colourful stones stand for cool stuff. Each is a personal story about grief and loss.

Down the hallway, a group of seven teenagers is playing the game “hi pukana” in which they make big eyes like warriors in a haka. This is the first time they have come together as a group but they are not lost for words. They have just completed a piece of art made up of wedges that symbolise what it feels like to be supported by Rainbow Place. Two of the girls have bought new dresses, especially for today; the boys are smart. “This isn’t how we generally build a new group,” says social worker and arts therapist Sheryn Buckley. “But this is an unusual situation.”

12-wkt-Hospice4 In another room, Bailey, 6, is also wearing a new dress with a rainbow on the bodice. She has a garland of flowers in her hair. Later she will sit down with royalty and share a cup of tea in plastic cups. Elsewhere, Mieke, 14, is holding her gift to the duchess – a picture of herself riding a pony and a letter about the rough stuff of cancer.

The Duchess steps out of the car. The bomb squad has completed its checks; men with guns stand discreetly to the side. Adult hospice patients who are well enough to leave their beds, peer through the gaps to catch a glimpse of the young woman who has won New Zealand’s heart.

Catherine smiles. She warmly greets those lined up to meet her. Then she turns her full attention to the children.

There is a rainbow over Hamilton on the day of the royal visit. It seems auspicious. “The day was a celebration of life,” says Hospice Waikato chief executive Craig Tamblyn. “Everybody in the marquee has experienced the negative side of life. What we saw on the day was a celebration of life. The Duchess was part of that.”

H 155Sam, aged 12, is the first child to meet the Duchess. He uses a sand tray to show her what it felt like to lose his dad. “I told her about my journey… She quite liked the sand tray idea of telling a story.” Catherine’s eyes well up with tears. She is clearly moved by Sam’s frankness and the way he is dealing with his loss. When she engages with a child, she is oblivious to anything else in the room. Her eyes never flicker. Nurse Zoe Fairbrother later observes, “It is as if every experience is a very personal experience.”

Catherine moves on to the play therapy room, where counsellor Lynda Lakin has a puppet on her hand. “Hi, Lynda” says the Duchess, holding out her hand. Lynda has to take the puppet off to greet her. The Duchess sits beside Bailey at the small tea table where brightly coloured cups and saucers are laid out. “Do you find it difficult sometimes? I’m sure you do, but you’re a very brave little girl.” She gently touches the rainbow on Bailey’s dress and promises to look for her mum, who is among the people outside. Bailey, who has been a bit of a media star in the build-up to the royal visit, later says it made her feel like “a princess for the day.”

In the art therapy room where the children are making paper mache boxes, the atmosphere is excited but a bit tense. Counsellor Jenni Willson is listening for the guests’ arrival. When the Duchess comes into the room, Jenni is squished behind the door as the international media jostle to get pictures. Catherine asks each children if she can shake their hand. She also says the art room is very tidy. “There’s normally paint everywhere and I end up getting some on myself.” When the photographers leave the room, Catherine is given her own box to fill with stones. She chooses a rough one, a smooth one and a colourful one. Later she tells Craig Tamblyn, “I think William will like the smooth one. And I think George will like the colourful one.” Craig replies, “Of course if George swallows any of these stones there isn’t going to be any comeback is there?” She laughs and says, “Oh, no. Should be good.”

 The children talk about her smile, her smiley eyes and her laughter. They also like her hands. They are so soft,” says one little girl. ”I love her accent, says another. They all think she is beautiful.

In the teen room, the Duchess asks the youngsters if they are able to talk amongst themselves and share their experiences. “I’m sure you’re going through difficult times but it’s great to have a place like this to help you.” Hamish, 17, gives her a grey onesie for Prince George with George’s name embroidered on it. Catherine doesn’t join in the “hi pukana” game and make big eyes but she does admire their artwork. She makes them feel at ease and they are not stuck for words. Later, teenager Lee, will ask the duchess if she likes vegetables. She replies, “George has to have his vegetables every day.” Sheryn Buckley says this is the first time the teenage group has come together. “But it is something that has very quickly bonded them.”

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Everyone talks about the “personal connection” the Duchess makes with those she greets. She talks to the children with genuine interest. She asks direct questions about how they are coping. And she answers their questions. Craig Tamblyn says, “I can’t imagine how exhausted she must have been at the end of the day because she absolutely focused on what people said and showed that she cared.”

The female staff have been practising their curtsies. Wayne Naylor, Director of Nursing doesn’t have to curtsy but he is busy trying to position adult hospice patients so they can catch a glimpse of the Duchess as she enters the marquee. Two of the adult patients are well enough to be wheeled outside. Another sneaks into the marquee without permission. A fourth is given an iPad and his friend videos the proceedings so he can watch it live. Janet, 75, is too ill to be moved so her daughter, Prue, stands in for her and later relays the story to her mum, shortly before her death.

H 065The carnival is under way. The Mad Hatter races past, checking his watch. There are white rabbits, pirates, butterflies and giant frogs. A massive Jack in the Beanstalk stretches to the top of a giant Scandinavian tepee; a huge witches’ cauldron is flanked by a treasure chest and a spiral of books threaded with reinforced steel. In one corner cupcakes are being made; in another there is face-painting and old-fashioned carnival games. For teenagers, there are time-zone machines, makeup artists and hair stylists. There is a kissing frog with a real prince inside and everyone wonders whether the Duchess will set him free.

Felicity Cawood came upon the idea of an Alice in Wonderland-themed Mad Hatter’s Tea Party while she was fossicking through the hospice warehouse. “I saw all these beds. I thought about mattresses; then I thought about the Princess and the Pea; then I thought about the fairy tales at the end of a rainbow. She and her sister Sarah Peterson, both young mums, have worked for weeks, planning, building, sewing, painting and begging. People have been very generous. Sir William and Judy, Lady Gallagher donated money for the party. Craig Tamblyn says the budget was $25,000 “but there are many more thousands of love dollars that have gone into this party.”

He says he is “blown away” by what has been delivered. “The sad thing for me was I didn’t have the time to appreciate it like everybody else because there were so many other things going on. All I remember is walking through and going, “Wow”. “I remember seeing the Mad Hatter running past but by that stage I had bomb squads arriving.”

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Catherine has emerged from the therapy rooms. She wants to join the children at the party. To do so, she has to walk across a small raised bridge to the tepee. Craig Tamblyn says to her, “Ma’am, this is how this has played out in my head. We walk across the bridge and one of us trips and that is caught on camera. She looks at him and laughs. “OK let’s try not to do that then.”H 428

An hour passes. The organisers look at their watches. It is time to wind up. The duchess is still chatting and smiling to the children who follow her every move. Kaiya, 6, presents a posy. It is made up of white Sweet William (which Catherine had it in her wedding bouquet when she married Prince William), Singapore orchids, white roses and lisianthus, with a chiffon wrap. The orchids have tiny crystal diamantes in the centre, reflecting the colours of the rainbow.

What will Catherine take from this visit?

Craig Tamblyn, who spent several minutes alone with the Duchess, hopes she will take what she saw back to Britain and ask questions such as, “How do we support children around grief and loss? He notes that Prince William suffered his own loss when he was a child. “I hope she goes back and asks those questions.”

He says Catherine has very good knowledge of paediatric palliative care in the UK. “She had done her homework before coming to see us. She was especially interested in the psychological support offered to family members when someone is dying. She was also interested in the care of children where there has been a sudden death.

“She asked what sudden death meant and we gave her some scenarios. The first child she met was a child who had been affected by sudden death. She was very moved by that.”

And what will the children at Rainbow Place take from this visit by Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge?

“Lifelong memories,” say the staff. “Some good things from times that are not so good. Things to share with others. Memories, photos, dreams that have come true for a day.”

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Catherine moves along the line of staff waiting to say goodbye. Wayne Naylor talks about hospice services in Britain. He says to her, “I hope you enjoyed our party.” The duchess asks nurse Zoe Fairbrother, who has worked at Rainbows Children’s Hospice in Britain, how long she has worked at Rainbow Place. Zoe says she didn’t think she would be nervous, “but I was.”

Allied Health Manager Vivien Young, who has ensured everything has gone smoothly during the tour of the therapy rooms, has given a lot of thought to what she wants to say to the Duchess as she leaves. She wants to give something special back, knowing how much the visit has meant to the children at Rainbow Place. She takes Catherine’s hand, curtsies and says, “You are a real gift.” Catherine smiles.

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