It was never going to be an easy day as Edward House closed its doors for the last time.
The life-size teddy bears and clowns looked as forlorn as the mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles and grandparents who bid staff an emotional farewell as they moved into make-shift accommodation at the Thistle Hotel.
Each “goodbye goodie bag”, containing soft drinks and sweets, was accompanied with a conciliatory cuddle.
The 33-bedroom family centre, which supported relatives of young patients at Birmingham Children’s Hospital, is to be bulldozed next month to make way for a £7 million, six storey Ronald McDonald Charities House, which will have at least 60 rooms.
But one by one families moved out, including one which travelled from Malta for their son’s third heart operation, with their temporary worlds packed up into boxes and bulging suitcases.
Frederick Pourrut, of Santa Venera, in Malta, was visiting his five-year-old son Benjamin who was born with a transposed aorta and pulmonary artery in his heart, which means he has problems breathing and eating.
The 36-year-old tourism officer said: “Ben was initially treated at Great Ormond Street when his condition was first diagnosed after birth, but we were brought up to Birmingham because the surgery he needed is so specialised, and with all that going on the people at Edward House could not have been more supportive.
“I don’t suppose we’ll get a 4pm tea and chat at the Thistle, let alone all this support, which is nice when you’ve had a bad day and just want to off-load all your worries.
“But it’s not just that, it gives everyone a chance to chat about ‘normal’ things, because they know what you’re going through because they’ve all had similar experiences, something staff there may not understand.”
His views are shared by Tony Quigley, a retired nursery nurse from Liverpool who has spent the past ten months in Edward House, while his grandson Ethan recovers from a liver and bowel transplant.
Mr Quigley, aged 59, added: “This really is our home from home, I don’t know what we would’ve done if this place didn’t exist.
“We found out last year that Edward House was set to close to make way for a Ronald McDonald House. My daughter Lindsay, Ethan’s mum, has stayed at their house near Alder Hey Hospital which said was good as a place to stay, as a roof over your head, but it lacks the personal touch of Edward House.
“Here they know your name, your child’s name, and what your story is, but at the McDonald House and I dare say the Thistle too, we’ll be nothing more than a room number.”
As more families leave armed with boxes, Kaddy Thomas made her feelings on centre’s closure clear. Although the 40-year-old lives in Selly Oak, she moved into Edward House last October, after doctors warned that her two-year-old son Ethan may die as a result of his brain haemorrhage.
“I didn’t want to be wasting valuable minutes travelling in and out of town, not at such a tough time, and he’s been on the ward ever since so I have to be here,” she said.
“It’s been a real sanctuary for me over the past few months, so this past week, as everyone’s been packing up has felt like a bereavement. I don’t think I’m the only one grieving the loss of Edward House either.
“The Children’s Hospital seems to have forgotten how much the families go through, and that Edward House is not just a roof over our heads.”
While families are losing a valuable resource, the eight members of staff are losing their jobs – including house manager Martin White, who has been at Edward House since it opened in 1998.
“This is a very difficult day for me, but it’s even harder for all these families who had come to rely on us for that extra support while their young ones were on a ward recovering from operation, injury or illness,” he said.
“We’ve become a very large, extended family of about 4,000, which is why it’s important to have those personal things, whether it’s afternoon tea or one to one chats, because that’s what families do. I chose the colour of the curtains and so on, but this place has always been about more than bricks and mortar. It’s been a home.”