Independent Appeal: The devotion that made a Christmas dream come true

Matilda Battersby discovers how the incredible support of the Rainbow Trust helped a family cope with a devastating illness

The Westmeijer family home in Surrey is unbelievably Christmassy. A tree covered in lights dominates the lounge, stockings hang on the fireplace and there are decorations everywhere. The youngest Westmeijers, Caitlyn, five, and Erin, two-and-a-half, charge around happily, repeatedly pressing the soft tummies of stuffed toys that play music, filling the house with conflicting Christmas tunes and laughing excitedly.

"That's enough now," says Christina, their mother, hiding her smiles behind a large cup of tea as we wait for the chaos to subside. The contrast between this and last year's Christmas is stark. In 2010 little Erin had been in and out of hospital undergoing gruelling treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, and it was uncertain right up until Christmas Eve, whether she would be allowed home. After just two days of festivities, Erin had a reaction to her treatment and was back in hospital until the new year.

Watching Caitlyn and Erin playing together a year on, they appear to be very healthy, happy girls. But it has been a difficult time for both of them. After 15 months of aggressive chemotherapy, Erin is now on a lower dose and recovering her strength. After coping with Erin's treatment in hospital, during which time at least one of her parents needed to be by her bedside at all times, Caitlyn has had to put aside the normal demands of a growing five-year-old and get used to not seeing her parents together, and being cared for by relatives and friends.

"I relied heavily on friends to pick Caitlyn up from school," Christina says. "When my husband, Jeroen, finished work he would come straight to the hospital and then I'd go and collect Caitlyn. In the beginning, when she was first diagnosed, I stayed with Erin all the time. But once she was moved to the Royal Marsden, an hour's drive away, Jeroen and I took turns to stay overnight with her. This was partly because you don't get much sleep on a night shift, and partly because I realised Caitlyn needed to see us both."

Nearly eight months after Erin was diagnosed, the Westmeijers were referred to Rainbow Trust – one of three charities for which we are asking donations for the 2011 Independent Christmas Appeal. The charity allocates a support worker to families who have a child with a life-threatening or terminal condition. These support workers are almost entirely funded through public generosity. They provide emotional and practical care, tailored to the needs of each family.

One of the most neglected of those needs can be the care of the brothers or sisters of the sick child. Siblings can feel isolated, ignored by their parents and unable to understand what is going on. Some 78 per cent of the families Rainbow Trust support juggle the demands of looking after sick and healthy siblings.

In the Westmeijers' case, Rainbow family support worker Lyn Sweet's task was to ensure Caitlyn's needs were supported so her parents could continue to support Erin. Lyn became somebody Christina or Jeroen could call on at any point and ask anything of, without feeling it was too much to request. Lyn has driven to and from the Royal Marsden to help out with appointments, been on call to collect Caitlyn from the family's local hospital in Frimley, Surrey, and has picked Caitlyn up from school, taken her on days out during the summer holidays and entertained both children and parents with craft sessions.

"When I first met the family, I think it would be fair to say that they were very good jugglers," Lyn says. "It was very difficult to know where they were going to be week on week and that could affect Caitlyn. She is a busy little girl and hospitals are not the greatest places to play and have fun in. I would come in and give her some time to be Caitlyn."

Jeroen and Christina have clearly provided fantastic care for Caitlyn in an impossible situation, but are aware that there have been moments when, like any child, she has felt the strangeness of it. Hospitals are quite isolating for healthy children and, particularly during the school holidays, Caitlyn would find herself without any kind of normal routine, unable to attend swimming lessons or visit her friends.

"Caitlyn was an absolute star. She never moaned that she wasn't getting enough attention," Christina says. "But it did affect her behaviour at some points," Jeroen adds. "All she needed was a little quality time and I can't stress enough how helpful it has been having Rainbow."

The family has been very open with Caitlyn about her sister's condition and what it means. So much so that Caitlyn is now something of a biology expert. After a recent fall at school, she bravely piped up to the nurse patching up her knee: "Oh, I'll be all right because I've got platelets to make me better. My sister doesn't have any of those."

Hopefully as Erin improves the Westmeijers will need to call on Lyn less and less. Until then, she'll be there, for Caitlyn or any of them, any time.

Appeal partners: Who we're supporting

Save the Children

Save the Children works in 120 countries, including the UK. They save children's lives, fight for their rights and help them fulfil their potential. Save the Children's vital work reaches more than 8 million children each year - keeping them alive, getting them into school and protecting them from harm. www.savethechildren.org.uk

The Children's Society

The Children's Society provides vital support to vulnerable children and young people in England, including those who have run away from home. Many have experienced neglect, isolation or abuse, and all they want is a safe and happy home. Their project staff provide essential support to desperate children who have no-one else to turn to.

www.childrenssociety.org.uk

Rainbow Trust Children's Charity

Rainbow Trust Children's Charity provides emotional and practical support for families who have a child with a life threatening or terminal illness. For families living with a child who is going to die, Rainbow Trust is the support they wished they never had to turn to, but struggle to cope without.

www.rainbowtrust.org.uk

At The Independent we believe that these organisations can make a big difference to changing many children's lives.

CLICK HERE TO DONATE NOW.

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

    £30,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for a perso...

    Sheridan Maine: Accounts Payable Clerk

    £21,000 - £24,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a new opportunit...

    Sheridan Maine: Finance Manager

    £55,000 - £65,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: Are you a qualified accountant with ...

    Sheridan Maine: Finance Analyst

    £45,000 - £55,000 Annual: Sheridan Maine: Are you a newly qualified accountant...

    Day In a Page

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor