At the age of 21, Tim Conolan was conducting workshops for children suffering from cancer. It was then that he had the experience that changed his life, and the lives of countless children.
It was in the early 1990s, and shortly after one of those camps, that Tim was sent some sad news about Francis, one of the kids who’d benefited from Tim’s workshops. Francis’s health was declining, and he didn’t have much longer to live. Tim also got word that there were three things Francis wanted while it was still possible: a surfboard, a new pair of runners, and the ability to take a breath without pain. The surfboard and the shoes were quickly bought. But Tim wondered how he could make Francis’s third wish possible.
“It was an extremely emotional moment, which I will never forget,” Tim reflects. He remembers talking Francis through a guided meditation. Despite his worsening condition, after relaxing Francis and helping him through, Francis took a long, deep breath. And another. He took three full breaths, without any pain.
A few days later, Francis passed away. Tim heard the news from Francis’ mother, Vivienne. “The thing Francis wanted the most was a breath without pain, so he could feel like a normal kid one more time,” she said. “You gave him that breath.”
Millions of smiles
Inspired by those words, Tim set up TLC for Kids with his life partner Ana, after the two met at the Royal Children’s Hospital in 1998. The aim was to help kids and families who didn’t have access to other healthcare support groups, providing the right support at the right time.
Since then, their services have been used over 9.5 million times to help sick kids and their families, averaging over a million positive engagements a year, and counting. Their services include their Distraction Box - a box of therapeutic items to engage kids during procedures - and their Rapid TLC Program. The program allows registered hospital staff to quickly alert TLC For Kids about urgent requirements children might have, and the team can immediately respond.
Although TLC for Kids was set up with the modest goal of just making kids smile in a difficult time, at times Tim’s work has been life-saving. One memory Tim shares is about a “Trip of a Lifetime” he organised a few years ago for eight teenagers with serious illnesses, complete with helicopter flights, celebrities, bowling, and a movie premiere. One of the mothers took him aside on the final night of the trip, and hugged him. Before the trip, she said, her daughter had made the decision to end her treatment, as the pain had become unbearable. However, the camaraderie of the trip changed her mind. “She asked her mum to book the treatment. That ended up saving her life.”
An ambulance kids look forward to
TLC For Kids is also well-known for its TLC Ambulance - a custom-built Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. It provides safe transport for children in palliative care to visit a treasured destination in comfort. Like Tim’s initial idea for TLC for Kids, the Ambulance was inspired by another mother, Jemima. Tim and his team had helped Jemima when her daughter was quite ill, and Jemima reached out after her daughter passed away. Jemima was, and still is, a paramedic with Ambulance Victoria, and together with Ana, devised a vision of what an ambulance could be.
Many specific requirements needed to be met. The checks and balances process with Ambulance Victoria took eighteen months, but the Sprinter’s customisable layout meant a range of modifications were possible. “We included specific medical equipment to ensure safety and emergency situations can be covered,” Tim elaborates, “and there are also a few surprise elements to make each trip unique for the kids… but I have been sworn to secrecy about that part, so I can’t say too much more!” The Sprinter’s spacious interior allowed Tim to include additional seating so family members can travel in the back with their child, and the internal theme can be changed to make trips unique.
A bright future
While TLC Ambulance trips have been put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are many slated for when restrictions ease, from places like the aquarium and the zoo, to going home to see the dog or visiting classmates or grandparents.
The next goal for TLC For Kids is to have four Mercedes-Benz Sprinter TLC Ambulances on the road in Victoria, and then expand to other states. “We would love to welcome anyone who wants to make a difference,” Tim closes. “To be part of something special and something that makes an immediate difference.”