Sheikha Fatima’s donation brought tears to my eyes

Peter Hellyer has a personal reason to praise a very generous donation to the world's most famous children's hospital.

A nurse comforts a patient at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children. Dylan Martinez / Reuters
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On Wednesday, it was announced that HH Sheikha Fatima, “the Mother of the Nation”, had donated the amazing sum of £60 million (around Dh 384 million) towards the cost of a £90 million centre for research into paediatric diseases at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children, or GOSH.

I will confess that when I read the news, tears came to my eyes.

The Great Ormond Street Hospital, as many UAE residents will know, is one of the best hospitals for children anywhere in the world. It’s an institution that I am personally familiar with, having been directly involved with it twice in my life.

Once, 20 or so years ago, I and a group of British expatriates in Abu Dhabi, some of whom are still here, got together to raise a few tens of thousands of pounds for the hospital. That was a tough challenge but with a lot of effort and support from both Emiratis and expatriates, we reached our target and then had the pleasure of handing over a cheque for the amount raised to the late Diana, Princess of Wales on one of her visits to the UAE.

My efforts in that fund-raising campaign were, in part, a way for me to say thank you. Years earlier, when my son was only a few weeks old, he developed a medical condition that required him to be admitted to the hospital for a short period.

It proved to be a temporary problem, easily solved, and no return in-patient visits were required, but I have never forgotten – how could I ? – the loving care that he and his worried parents received.

The dedication of the hospital’s staff was remarkable, humbling to behold, and one doctor and one nurse, who later got married, remained close friends for many years. We were fortunate.

Other parents, less fortunate than us, including some of our friends, had to go through the ordeal of seeing their young children gradually slip away, despite the knowledge that everything that was humanly possible was being done for them. That was, at least, some comfort amid the devastating loss.

The hospital, now more than 160 years old, is an incredible and inspiring place. Its reputation worldwide is second to none, and rightly so. More than 220,000 children from over 95 countries visit it every year. In the last four years alone, more than 750 children from the UAE have been treated there for a wide variety of medical conditions, with many thousands before that.

Over many years, Sheikha Fatima has demonstrated, in so many ways, her concern for the young, not only in the UAE, but abroad as well.

Support for child health programmes, donations towards humanitarian relief, scholarship programmes, shelter homes for young victims of human trafficking, an anti-obesity campaign aimed at UAE children – all this and much more is testimony to her passionate and deep-seated concern for children.

As she noted in a statement accompanying the announcement of her gift to GOSH: “The most important work that we can undertake as a global society is to improve the health of future generations so that communities can thrive and grow. To reach this goal, we must form collaborative partnerships that have the potential to benefit all children.”

This gift will certainly do that. Thanks to her generosity, the hospital, in association with University College London and the hospital’s own Children’s Charity, will now be able to build the world’s first centre dedicated to research into rare diseases affecting children.

The announcement of the donation noted that, globally, rare diseases affect one in 17 people and are particularly prevalent in children, of whom nearly one in three die before they reach their fifth birthday. The new centre will focus on new ways of tackling that challenge, through a ground-breaking partnership between academic science and clinical medicine. Once it opens, in 2018, it will offer new hope to thousands of children and thousands of parents.

In a few days time during a short visit to London, I expect to be walking past the Great Ormond Street Hospital. I will remember my own experiences of being involved, as a parent and as a fund-raiser. And I will smile, with enormous pride, as I think of the way in which our Sheikha Fatima has demonstrated in such a remarkable way her generosity and her caring spirit. I will also remember the dedication that she has displayed over so many years to helping the children of the UAE and of the broader global community.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture