Welsh Research and Education Network
Hot topics in research and medical education, in Wales and beyond
Dr Rachel Morris ST6 Neonatal GRID Trainee
My name is Rachel Morris and I am currently working as an ST6 neonatal registrar in Cardiff. Over the last 3 years I have also volunteered as a Dreamflight Doctor. Over this time, I have been fortunate to accompany 48 children - most of whom are from Wales - to Orlando for their holiday of a lifetime. WREN have kindly given me this opportunity to tell you about Dreamflight and what my role entails.
Dreamflight was co-founded in 1986 by two British Airways employees, Patricia Pearce and Derek Pereira. They had a dream of facilitating a trip for children with a serious illness or a disability to Disney World in Florida for a holiday they would never forget. After recruiting volunteer doctors, nurses and physiotherapists from around the UK, they embarked on their first trip in 1987. Now 31 years on Dreamflight has taken over 5000 deserving children from across the UK to Florida. Patricia and Derek have both subsequently been awarded an MBE for setting up such a remarkable, life changing charity.
Every October 192 children, aged between 8-14 years, make up 12 regional groups from across the UK, and board their very own private ‘Dreamflight' Jumbo Jet. Many of the children could not travel without the 24hr medical support Dreamflight provides. The children come on the trip without their parents, and may be their first taste of independence, often finding a confidence they didn't know they had.
I was asked if I would like to apply to Dreamflight when a vacancy came up in the welsh group. Having heard about the trip I did not hesitate to send in my CV and application. I then had an informal interview to secure my place. Being a Dreamflight doctor is like no other role I have taken on. You become part of the Dreamflight family and form life-long friendships. With each trip costing in the region of £800,000, all year round there are an army of dedicated Dreamflight volunteers that take on huge challenges and organise wacky events to ensure we meet the target.
Each time I travel with Dreamflight so many 'what if's' go through my mind. I worry about not knowing enough about each child's medical condition, terrified of what I would tell their parents if they were to become unwell. I think these thoughts will never go away and maybe shouldn't. But very soon into my first trip I realised my role on the trip was much more than being a doctor. In fact, with the support of the nurses and physio within my group, coupled with the incredible support and advice from Dreamflight’s Medical Director you share every major medical decision, which made that aspect of my role slightly easier.
Possibly more importantly I also act as an ‘escort’ - a parental figure to two of the children. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for families to hand over their children for 10 days, which is why all of the escorts begin to build relationships with the families from the time their child is selected and send updates when on the trip. It is comforting to be able to relay to the families about all the training and procedures the charity has in place to ensure all of our children are safe, well and happy.
Every volunteer would be expected to attend the annual briefing and training day, along with a welcome day for the families and children to meet prior to the trip.
While we are in Orlando, each regional group has lovingly chosen a character name - I am part of Team Shrek! (Being the Shrek Doc has a much nicer ring to it that being “The Pooh Doc”!)
Each team would have 3 radio holders so that the doctors and team leaders can communicate to share top tips, and request support should they need it. The entire team wear one colour and are easily identified in the busy theme parks, and we have hospital style drug charts to keep track of medications throughout the day.
My concerns as the group doctor keep me on my toes even if I’m upside down on a roller coaster! The desire to have that constant knowledge of how the children are feeling, are they getting too tired, have they taken their medications on time, do we have their lunch time medications with us, have they eaten the correct foods, are they well hydrated, are they constipated? As well trying not to be over bearing and give them that chance to be independent! Aghh! A very tricky balancing act and a majorly steep learning curve! It is reassuring to know you are not alone with these concerns, and the wonderful sense of team spirit with the experienced Dreamflighters in the team help to steer us all in the right direction and help create that balance.
Each doctor is on-call one night of the trip, the rest of the nights you are 'off duty' from 9pm when you handover to the night nurses and on-call doctor, attending handover again at 7am to resume your doctor/escort role.
As well as all the more serious responsibilities, we also ensure we make every day as fun as possible! This involves high quality costume preparation, singing, dancing and lots of partying. We have a different outfit every day, designed around a theme, for example we have 'festival theme', 'American theme', and my personal favourite 'tropical flamingo theme'! We have neon tutus, headscarves, incredible glitter face paints as well as wearing our Shrek ears at all times. I go nowhere without my retro 80s bum-bag, worn like a holster, sun-cream and calpol primed for action.
As a Dreamflight volunteer I work within an amazing group, headed up by our group leader Gillie Ticehurst, who is truly remarkable at making sure we all feel supported. During the trip we have a compulsory meeting/debrief every evening once the children have gone to bed. Going around the room, every single group member is asked to share any highs or lows from the day, any physical or emotional strain they may be experiencing. We support and discuss solutions to problems, ensuring work load is being fairly distributed. I have learnt a lot from the attention to wellbeing and peer support the charity offers to its volunteers. With the NHS putting more and more emphasis on wellbeing, it is meetings like this I hope we can incorporate more.
With regards to other aspects of my role, it is much more than the 10-day trip. From early February I start spreading the word of Dreamflight. Contacting junior doctors, consultants as well as all members of the MDT to nominate children. Without nominations, the trip simply cannot happen. This can be a major challenge, appreciating how little time health care workers have to dedicate to extra form filling. We then meet the children to carry out a medical assessment and give them a chance to get to know us. We may also need to do home visits to appreciate equipment needed. As a group of medics and non-medics we then work around the clock making sure everything is in place to ensure the trip runs as smoothly as possible.
As well as the crazy rollercoasters and outstanding themed entertainment they have opportunities to learn to swim, ride on the back of a dolphin and perform in our talent show in front of hundreds of people. An opportunity so many take up and thrive on. In 2008, eight of the returning Paralympians from Beijing, many of them medal-winning, had been Dreamflight children and say that Dreamflight was a real turning point in their lives.
Allow me to share with you a little extract from an email I received following our last trip, a parent of a child with insulin dependent diabetes wrote …'Before Orlando, L was very dependent on us. He was continuously nagged about his blood sugar, as a result he had really low confidence, he was miserable, angry and had very little freedom. Since being home he's like a totally different kid! He's so confident and capable! We've taken a massive step back allowing him to make his own choices. For the first time Saturday he went to a Halloween party for 3 hours alone and yesterday went to a mates house for the entire day ☺…'. I think this feedback really sums up why I feel so passionate about Dreamflight!
I cannot emphasize enough how the opportunities the children are given on Dreamflight impact on their future lives. I am passionate about what this small but mighty charity does for the children as I have seen first hand the genuine difference it can make to the children and their families. I assure you it’s far more than a holiday, it’s maybe that chance for a child to find acceptance for their condition, or the capacity to enjoy some independence while in a safe environment, a boost to their confidence perhaps, and for so many of them - a sense of belonging and friendship. For others - it could be just a break from the monotony of their treatment they deserve with the kind of medication that cannot be prescribed - that I guess is the magic of Dreamflight!
If you would like to know more about applying to be a Dreamflight doctor please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org or see our website at www.Dreamflight.org. and PLEASE remember to NOMINATE!
Dr Annabel Greenwood