Christine Coombes has been the House Keeper at Crawford House for the last 22 years. This month she will be hanging up her uniform as she says goodbye to the much-loved house, team and families whom she has grown close to for more than two decades. From starting at Crawford House as cover for a colleague, Christine has gone on to meet thousands of families with seriously ill children undergoing treatment at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary, many of whom remain within her heart.
“It’s with a heavy heart that I say goodbye to Crawford House and The Sick Children’s Trust. I look back and think, how could it have been so long? Where did all the years go? When I started at Crawford House I was 39 and I remember thinking then that I was too old to do the job! At that time, there were 17 bedrooms to upkeep alongside communal areas – and lots of steps! Throughout all those years though, my job has been filled with lots of happiness and memories I will never forget.
“I’ve watched many families walk over from the wards and through the doors of Crawford House. They’re shattered, weary and so tired, but soon their faces change as they realise they’re safe and not far from their poorly child. There’s always someone in the office at Crawford House that they can talk to, and they realise this is a home where they can have a hot shower and sleep well in a comfortable bed. They then have more strength and are in a better place when they go back to their child.
“I wasn’t sure I could do the job at first – and it didn’t take me long to realise that I wasn’t just there to clean the house. The very first mum I met was a lovely Irish lady. She was the most devoted mum and would always ask how you were, about your life and your family. On the day she was due to go home with her son, she came through the door crying her heart out. ‘What am I going to do now?’ she said as I realised her son had passed away. I didn’t know how to help, but somehow found it in myself to– because you do. You find it in yourself to comfort that person in whatever way you can. We sat and we talked. For a while she stayed in touch and we wrote to each other. She was always interested in hearing about the house and I think she really needed that correspondence.
“The loveliest thing about Crawford House is that I’ve always been made to feel part of it. The families we support have tiny babies, children who have been involved in terrible road accidents or undergoing cancer treatment. A lot of the time, they need to talk and I’ve always happily listened. Crawford House picks a family up in their darkest moments and gives them hope. They walk through the door looking frantic and Crawford House is like a warm blanket wrapping itself around them. It makes them feel secure. They haven’t got to sleep on a chair or the floor to be close to their child. They know they’re just minutes away in a homely place at Crawford House and it really means so much to every family - I see it every day.
“I’ll often be going about my day and just ask how someone is and get to know them and their story quite well. There was one family from Berwick. Their son was undergoing treatment for cancer. It went well and he returned home. Sometime later, I saw him and his mam back at the hospital. He had all his hair back, but looking on his mam’s face I knew it wasn’t good. They were soon told there was no hope for their son. It was terrible and to this day it still upsets me. I got to know him and his family, it breaks your heart when they don’t get to go home.
“Just last year, that little boy’s parents came back and with them was a teenager. It was his sister who stayed at Crawford House with us when she was a toddler. It was so emotional seeing them. It brought everything back. But what was so lovely was that his picture was still on the wall. He was still very much a part of Crawford House.”
Christine, who has three daughters and eight grandchildren will fill her spare time helping with the school runs and spending more time with her family.
“You appreciate everything you’ve got when you meet families every day with such poorly children. I always feel grateful that every one of my children and grandchildren is healthy.
“Over the years, more and more, I’ve realised how amazing The Sick Children’s Trust is and I’m so proud to be part of it. At the heart of the charity is poorly children and making sure that they’re never alone. If a child has a parent close by, they are comforted. Years ago, I remember a little girl who could see her mam’s room at Crawford House and she used say ‘Mam, I’ll be looking over, give us a wave when you’re there.’ She knew how close she was and that she wasn’t alone. She knew her mam was right there.
“There are so many happy memories that I’ll be taking with me from Crawford House. Among the many families I’ve met, I’ve been able to give them a hug as they walk out the door, taking their child home. Their smiles leave me feeling so happy and proud, and I go home with a huge smile on my face because another family has been able to go spend the evening at home together, with their child that has been saved.
“Crawford House will always remain in my heart, and if it wasn’t for my limbs telling me so, there’d be no way I’d be leaving. Alongside myself, I know there are so many families out there who carry a piece of it in their heart and will be forever grateful and thankful to the house.”
Crawford House opened in 1996 and in that time has supported over 11,000 families with seriously ill children undergoing treatment at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary. During that time, Christine has been an integral part of Crawford House, not just ensuring a warm welcoming to thousands of people going through complete turmoil, but being there as a shoulder to cry on, someone to chat to and share a worry with.
On behalf of all the families The Sick Children’s Trust has supported at Crawford House, from the bottom of our hearts we would like to thank Christine for her 22 years of service and dedication.
Christine will be very much missed and we wish her well in her endeavours. Christine, you will forever be a friend of Crawford House.