It can all seem a huge blur when parents and their children are ushered into an ambulance and taken to a hospital, sometimes miles away from their home, for medical tests and procedures. The fear of the unknown can be terrifying once the adrenaline wears off and — paired with unfamiliar medical speech that most people are not fluent in –– can make those first few hours at any hospital stressful.
Attempting to decipher information from medical personnel can be taxing for adults and for children, who are already nervous, sick and lying in a bed that’s not their own, and their fears and worries begin to set in.
That’s where a child life specialist comes in.
As child life programs are becoming familiar fixtures in many hospitals throughout the country, these certified specialists are there to ensure children and their families are comfortable and fully understand the information given to them by their doctors and nurses.
At the Niswonger Children’s Hospital at Johnson City Medical Center, Child Life Specialists Marinda McConnell, the program’s manager, and Erin Bachus, start each day reviewing patients from infancy to 18 years old, determining what procedures they will be having, what they can prepare the patients for, asking the nurses how the child or teen did during the night, as well as the child’s overall coping status.
“From that point, we see each patient based on priority and from there (we) provide the appropriate interventions when needed,” McConnell said. “Every child should be seen by us daily, at least once and if not more per day.”
Each patient’s child life experience varies depending on the reason they were admitted to the hospital. McConnell said child life specialists first introduce themselves to the child and their parents, and inform them that they are there to provide explanations of procedures with them and at levels they can easily interpret.
“We try to explain things to children and teens in a very sensory-oriented manner,” she said. “Describing how it will feel, what it will sound like … taste and things like that, that they can relate to. I think that has a lot to do with fear, especially related to pain or anxiety, so we always like to explain things in a sensory manner.”
For Jules Rosario, 14, of Kingsport, coming to the children’s hospital was a little intimidating, but she said the child life specialists helped ease her fears and were able to explain everything more in-depth.
“They helped me before I had to go to my MRI because I was worried about that,” she said. “They showed me all the pictures and explained everything that was going to go on.”
McConnell said that for the different ages of children seen in the hospital they have different approaches to explaining their information. She said her interaction with Jules, a teenager, would be different compared to that of a 5-year-old.
“She’s a teen. She needs to be treated like a teenager,” she said. “We wanted to make sure we spoke to her in a way that would help her understand, but also be respectful of her developmental level. Our role is to bring information to teens in a non-threatening manner that’s respectful, so that they will open up and will ask the questions that they may not ask anyone else.”
Once the serious stuff was out of the way, Jules was introduced to the ever-popular teen room, created and decorated with funds the child life program sought out. The children’s playroom area in the hospital was also decorated and furnished with things from those funds, as well as donations from people in the community.
Jules said she was definitely impressed with the teen area and was thankful to have a space specifically for her age group.
“I thought I was going to be in a kid’s room and then I found out there was a teen room,” she said. “It’s like the coolest room in the whole place. My favorite thing in the room had to be the arts and crafts and then the Wii, because you can come on down here and they have tons of games to pick from, and then you can go and relax and play.”
For Jules’ mom, Jill Rosario, the explanations and extra attention her daughter was receiving from the child life team really made a difference in their stay at the hospital.
“It was a very stressful situation for me. As they calmed her down, it helped calm me down,” Rosario said. “She was making friends and … that was actually giving me some time to be able to make phone calls and talk to people and do what I needed to without having to tend to her.”
Rosario said that a lot of what the doctors were saying went over her head and that without child life there to provide examples, explaining things to her daughter would’ve been difficult.
“They’ve (doctors) just told you that they’re going to have to do all of these tests on your child, so … your mind starts going in a hundred directions,” Rosario said. “They (child life) break it down where it’s easy to understand. They’re not just somebody who’s here … just to play with the kids. Not at all. They’re educating them on why they’re here.”
Along with education comes what McConnell said is the key to helping kids stay positive when they’re sick: Distraction.
“I recently started utilizing what we call ‘Buzzy Bee’ and he’s a distraction tool that we use and we’re piloting him right now,” she said. “He’s a little bee that helps with distraction and pain management during procedures, such as port access, IV placement, insulin shots.”
McConnell said for infants, they play around with lights and sounds, preschoolers like to point and count things on a page, school age kids enjoy quizzes, trivia and match games, while teenagers respond well to humor and talking about things in their life.
“Every patient’s different and unique. So, although I may do some of the same teachings over again, the children make it very different,” she said.
Child life does work a lot of times with child traumas, as they work throughout scattered portions of the entire hospital.
“Child life specialists can cover a variety of different areas. We are able to cover pediatrics, intensive care units … same-day surgery, pediatric OR, pediatric ER, oncology, hematology and the list goes on,” she said. “Basically, anywhere in the hospital, even the adult floors.”
McConnell said while the overall goal is to help a child prepare for a procedure that will help them recover, the reality of her job is that some children they work with for hours, days and sometimes even years, do not make it.
Admitting that those days are some of the toughest, she said she is happy to serve a family in need and happy she can make a difference in the child and family’s lives during that time.
“I always think about it as the fact that … it’s a privilege for me to be in that space and in their presence during those times, because not everybody gets that opportunity to serve in that capacity,” McConnell said. “I think that being able to work with children, be a support for families — even when it’s some of the most challenging times that they’ve ever experienced — to be in that space and to make it at least a little more bearable is definitely a gift and one that I’m thankful for.”
So, whether it’s playing cards or video games with a patient, or just talking with them on a level they can comprehend, McConnell said as a child life specialist she feels a sense of purpose walking into work each day.
“What I enjoy most about my work is that I get to help children and teens and families every day,” she said. “I’m always able to come and feel like I’m doing something good for others, that I’m helping their experience to be positive here.”