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Beads of Courage

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You know that feeling when something is completely and utterly good? Where there are no catches, no downsides, just pure, unfiltered goodness. When you discover something that you believe couldn’t possibly get any better? Beads Of Courage – a simple yet beautiful programme to mark a child’s journey through illness – rouses that exact feeling.

So imagine my delight when researching the organisation’s origins for this post; I discovered that my all-time favourite thing inspired them. Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camps (now known as the SeriousFun Children’s Network) is an organisation to which I’ve dedicated the past decade of my life. Perhaps I’ll tell you about that sometime (Ed. – hint taken).

Sample set of beads showing child’s name and also the metal Research sun bead on the left of the thread

Jean Baruch created the first Beads of Courage programme whilst working on her PhD in Nursing (who says procrastination isn’t worthwhile, hey?), having been inspired by her role as a camp nurse at one of the Hole in the Wall Gang Camps. The first Beads of Courage programme was piloted at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Arizona, in 2003.

Sixteen years later, Beads of Courage can be found in children’s hospitals worldwide. The idea is simple: children experiencing significant health-related challenges receive beads representing each hurdle they achieve, from blood tests and clinic visits to surgery and chemotherapy and everything in between. The beads thread together to form a visual, tactile timeline representing each child’s unique journey.

Beads of Courage are commonly found in children’s oncology and haematology wards. The different beads make an excellent marker of chemotherapy schedules and can help children and young people to visualise what lies ahead and track their progress and see how far they’ve come. Recognising the incredible value of the Beads, hospitals are starting to extend the programme to other conditions.

I have the honour of helping my wonderful nursing colleague Julie to co-ordinate the Beads of Courage for chronic conditions at Edinburgh’s Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Scotland. I want to share some snippets of experience and observations about how empowering, and important the Beads can be to children, young people, and families.

Examples of the handmade Bead Bags that children choose when starting on the Beads of Courage

The Beads are a beautifully simple way to improve the experiences of children and families in hospitals as they navigate their health challenges. A child can start on the program at any time, not just during diagnosis.

A child beginning their Beads of Courage journey receives a starter pack, which includes a Bead Journal, thread, a set of letter beads to spell their name, and a set of beads representing their journey so far. If it’s a while after their diagnosis, they also get a bunch of large, decorated beads to represent accumulated challenges and achievements.

The big special beads representing prior years of challenges since diagnosis.

Once started, every health challenge – both physical and psychological – has a representative bead. Every clinic visit, blood test, x-ray, or any other challenge related to the child’s condition is rewarded with a bead, regardless of the ‘success’ of the procedure. The beads, threaded in order, represent a child’s journey. They empower the child to take charge of their healthcare by providing a simple visual aid and representation of what they have been through and are going through.

A child can reflect on their many achievements to date, which often helps them overcome the hurdles ahead. They can see what beads are coming next and use this as a positive in facing challenges ahead. Considerable hurdles are rewarded with special beads. This facilitates reflection on past accomplishments when the time comes to do them again.

One of the unique handmade glass beads to mark particular Acts of Courage

Glass and ceramic artists from the International Society of Glass Beadmakers (I love that this exists) hand-make individual beads which are rewarded for achievements such as surgery, big procedures, first days walking after immobilisation, and transplants. ‘Act of Courage’ beads are unique beads that can be rewarded for anything difficult for the child. These help get past phobias and other significant challenges for individual children and young people, or even taking charge of their healthcare with the Beads empowering patients to bring their medications or perform their procedures.

The Beads also act as a visual reminder to others of exactly what the child has been through. It can be easy for healthcare professionals to forget just how many hurdles a child has been through. The beads help with that. Seeing a length of bead can help healthcare professionals minimise the number of procedures and tests a child has to face, or at least properly acknowledge exactly what they are asking their patient to go through.

The Beads of one of our patients, which at the time of discharge totalled over 1000! (photo with permission)

We have children daily ring our department doorbell (it plays the Little Mermaid theme) to get a top-up of beads when they’re in for a clinic visit. It adds a positive aspect to hospital visits.

Beads of Courage are already well-established in our hospital’s oncology and haematology department. When we took on the challenge of extending the programme to the rest of the hospital, we found a few useful techniques that helped us spread the Beads to as many children as hospital. We started offering the Beads to children admitted to PICU and HDU, reflecting their monumental journeys. These children had various conditions and eventually progressed to step-down to several wards in the hospital. This enabled us to visit all of these wards and demonstrate the programme’s effectiveness.

Soon, ward staff identified other children under their care who might benefit from Beads of Courage. We have worked closely with Specialist Nurses, Play Therapists and other Allied Health Professionals to offer Beads to as many children as possible. Julie and I both work in our Clinical Research Facility, and our clinical trial participants also receive Beads (including a special metallic ‘Research Bead’) to represent their participation in exciting and breakthrough studies.

An example of just some of the beads available

There are many benefits to using Beads of Courage, but perhaps most importantly, the Beads help children to articulate aspects of the condition and related health challenges. They can use the beads as a starter for what they want to discuss and refer to them when talking about fears or anxieties. The beads break down the barriers between their condition and their peers, allowing them to show and explain these barriers, quickly becoming less daunting to them and their friends.

For parents and healthcare professionals, talking to a child about what bead they might be a little worried about getting in the future is also a handy way of facilitating difficult conversations with children and young people.

The Parent Bead, given to parents to represent their commitment to their child and support of their own challenges. We also use Sibling Packs.

It’s not just children; we have several teenagers who adore the Beads of Courage and see them as a vital part of their healthcare. We also do sibling packs and parent beads, recognising families’ broader challenges. If on the rare occasion, a child dies, a unique Butterfly Bead marks the bereavement. It creates closure for the Beads journey, which parents find incredibly important and prevents the painful reminder of seeing an ‘unfinished’ thread of beads.

The Butterfly Bead, for when a child dies.

Julie and I find it an incredible honour to be involved with Beads of Courage and it is one of the most rewarding aspects of our jobs. Starting a child of the programme takes around 10 minutes, and topping up their beads only takes a few minutes each time. It’s an easy and enjoyable part of my day, which takes next to no time at all but is hugely rewarding and important. Hospital charities and local organisations are often keen to support the programme as it provides tangible, evidence-able (is that a word?) feedback on its effectiveness. So what are you waiting for? Get Beads of Courage started in your hospital today.

One of our Beads of Courage heroes (photo with permission)

Thom O’Neill and Julie Baggott (Senior Paediatric Research Nurse, Royal Hospital for Sick Children, Edinburgh)

Thanks & Disclaimer: A billion thank-yous to Edinburgh Children’s Hospital Charity and Edinburgh & Lothian Health Foundation, who both support us locally to run Beads of Courage. In the UK the Beads of Courage programme is distributed by Be Child Cancer Aware. We have no financial link to Beads of Courage and have written about them purely from our own admiration for the organisation.

About the authors

  • Thom O’Neill is a paediatric clinical research fellow at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children, Edinburgh. He has interests in LGBTQ+ healthcare, social determinants of health, and healthcare inequalities. He is currently working with the Rural GP Association Scotland to help improve healthcare for LGBTQ+ people in remote and rural regions. He is a Clinical Educator for South East Scotland, and teaches on modules at both Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities. He is also a ‘LGBT Role Model’ with Stonewall Scotland and runs sessions in schools across Scotland.

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7 thoughts on “Beads of Courage”

  1. Roxanne Lavigne-Lutz avigne

    My 6 year old and 4 year old was at Children’s Hospital NICU when they were born. Their bio mom put really horrible drugs in her body when she was pregnant. My son/ grandson spent 2 1/2 months fighting for his life. His sister 1 1/2 months. They earned a lot of beads. I put them up so I can string for them when they got older. I feel horrible. I can’t find them anywhere. Can I purchase a bunch from you?. Oh heads up. The cuddles, nurses and Doctors are heaven sent. I thank God for them.

  2. I am a glass bead artist in Australia and I would like to start donating anneallled beads to BOC Australia. Could you please give me an email and some details about how I should wrap them?

  3. My son has just received his starter set and is really liking having a visual representation of what he has and is going through. It is also very encouraging to see what you’ve gotten through already!

  4. What a wonderful idea….I did not know such program existed. I sponsor a program called “Beads for a Cause” – unfortunately I cannot run it myself but prefer that a hospital or an organisation run it. Is this program running anywhere in Australia?

  5. What a wonderful idea….I did not know such program existed. I sponsor a program called “Beads for a Cause” – unfortunately I cannot run it myself but prefer that a hospital or an organisation run it. Is this program running anywhere in Australia?

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