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The Bedtime Cart: Creating Sweeter Dreams for Rady Children’s Patients

Judy and Margaret

It’s a Wednesday night. The lights in the Peckham Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego are low, and a lull has fallen over halls that were full of hustle and bustle just a few hours ago. But in the midst of the evening quiet, there’s still activity afoot. From patient rooms drift gently whispered tales of Harry Potter and Thomas the Tank Engine, and the soothing aroma of freshly brewed chamomile tea fills the air. That’s because on Wednesday nights, The Bedtime Cart — and its devoted volunteers — make the rounds to bring a little extra comfort to the center’s patients and their families.

The Bedtime Cart has been delivering sweeter dreams since 2015, when Margaret Fitzgerald, B.S.N., R.N., C.P.O.N. (pictured on the right), a 16-year Rady Children’s employee and hematology/oncology nurse-turned nurse manager-turned interim director of the Peckham Center, got it rolling. “I started because I really wanted patients and families to have what they needed to get a good night’s sleep,” she says. “You should have the same routine you have at home. So I thought, ‘well, I’ll start a cart that goes around with volunteers.’” Stocked with goods such as cozy socks, soft flannel pillowcases, herbal teas, books for kids of all ages and even miniature bottles of a custom-blended lavender aromatherapy lotion, the cart was an instant hit with patients and loved ones, so much so that Margaret has helped replicate it in two additional units.

It also made an impression on Judy Wagner (pictured on the left), then a patient care coordinator volunteer and now a part-time parent liaison at the Peckham Center. Judy recognizes the need for kids and caregivers at Peckham to have a calm nighttime ritual more than most — a few years ago, she and her son, Jackson, were right there among them. In 2012, Jackson, then 16, was diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma, a rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and spent seven months inpatient at Rady Children’s. He’s now 22, enrolled in college and cancer-free, but his time at the Hospital is still fresh in Judy’s mind. “I remember the nights being really long,” Judy recalls. “Busy days, long nights.” She adds that after the constant, often overwhelming stream of treatments, bedside visits, check-ups and physician rounds all day, “you almost weren’t ready for night.” So, when she had the opportunity to be a Bedtime Cart volunteer, she jumped at the chance.

“The parents and I would look at each other, and they wouldn’t know I had a story, but there was just a bond,” she says; an unspoken understanding of shared experience and strength. “The word I like to use is ‘equanimity.’ When you’re in [the hospital with your child], nothing else matters.”  She also says she cherishes being able to stay connected to the team who surrounded her, Jackson, and their family and friends with support and positivity through his treatment. “We got really close to everyone — doctors, nurses, the cleaning crew. You just become a family.”

The Bedtime Cart has another special component — a deep-rooted bond with law enforcement agencies, ranging from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Drug Enforcement Administration to individual police departments. These entities have been steadfast supporters of the cart since its inception, says Margaret, and agents, officers and staff began participating in monthly cart visits and bedtime story readings about two years ago. “My vision was having officers come up with volunteers [to read],” she explains. “It’s a way to increase literacy while creating a connection between law enforcement and community.” Margaret continues to say that while participants are sometimes a bit apprehensive at first, “they leave asking, ‘how can I do this again?’ I think they get as much out of it as the kids do.”

It’s safe to say The Bedtime Cart experience has that effect; that sense of full-circle compassion and comfort, on many. As a newly minted official employee, Judy also wanted to ensure her job description had room to keep her cart visits on repeat.  When preparing to transition from volunteer to staff just a few weeks ago, she says one of her most pressing questions was, “Can I keep doing The Bedtime Cart?” (She can). For Judy, her additional face time with patients and their caregivers is priceless. When asked about what it means to her, she brings up a favorite Latin saying, tears welling in her eyes. “Non mihi, non tibi, sed nobis — not for me, not for you, but for us. When Jackson got sick, it was like someone took my heart, threw it on the ground and broke it into a million pieces. Being here has put it back together and made it grow even more.”