If you are like me, you probably went from a positive pregnancy test to “I hope he has his father´s eyes, his grandfather´s sense of humor, his grandmother´s kindness, etc.” Hoping and expecting to have a healthy pregnancy, delivery and most of all a healthy child.
Life can be like that… or not. In my case the road had a few bumps… I went from “It´s twins!” to “Sit down and listen because it is a high risk pregnancy.” I was a good girl, I listened and I laid down quietly the last two months of my pregnancy trying to keep the boys in my womb until they were ready to come out to the world. And we made it! We had an emergency C-section because my water broke a couple of hours ahead of the scheduled time for the C-section. My boys were born at full term (for twins) and with no complications… for that I will be forever grateful.
Life goes on and children are children and sometimes they get sick. Like I said I have been very blessed and I only had minor bumps on the road. Some of these bumps led me to the hospital a couple of times in Chihuahua, Mexico. A hospital is a challenging environment for a toddler and for the whole family. My first experiences were frustrating because the environment was not child friendly at all. It is hard to explain to an 18th month old baby that he needs to cooperate so that the nurse can start an IV on him. It is even harder for him to understand that he needs to let it be and not pull it off… I could go on and on.
My last experience was in Providence Memorial Hospital in El Paso, TX where they have a Child Life Program in place. Nobody told me of the program, I discovered it myself. At first sight the environment was different, the walls had peaceful ocean animals on them, and there was an “Activity Room” that looked pretty much like a Montessori Classroom with child size furniture, shelves, games and even replicas of some of the medical equipment (Like a wooden MRI). One of the nurses lend me a Radio Flyer wagon so that I could take my child for a ride when he was bored. The experience was completely different.
I asked and they took me to the office of the Lead Child Life Specialist who kindly explained to me about this profession that I instantly fell in love with it! Ten years have passed and I am finally coming close to my dream of becoming a Child Life Specialist.
While doing my internship (With the same Child Life Specialist who kindly gave me the information 10 years ago, and who has been truly a blessing as a teacher) I have learned about the scope of this profession and also I have become aware that only a few people know about it and that it is often misunderstood.
The work of a Child Life Specialist consists mainly of 3 broad categories:
- Offering emotional support to the hospitalized child and to his/her family.
- Providing opportunities for developmentally appropriate activities and play.
- Preparation before medical or surgical procedures/ support and or distraction during procedures.
It will be hard to try to describe in a few paragraphs the full spectrum of what I have seen during my internship, however, I will give it a try!
The emotional support can go from helping a child cope with a new diagnosis, offering support and/or company during a procedure, validating a child’s feelings and needs, validating a parent’s feelings and needs, listening to parent’s concerns, being a companion at end of life moments, creating legacy memories for the family and providing grief and mourning resources for bereavement among others. The child Life Specialist is this non-judgmental presence that many times goes unnoticed but that leaves a great impact. For some patients they can go in and out without seeing a Child Life Specialist or maybe seeing her only once… for recurrent patients like oncology kids they can be a constant comforting figure with whom they establish a long-lasting and trusting relationship.
Child Life recognizes the importance of play in child development. When a child is in the hospital, his/her routines and environment change drastically… many new faces go in and out of the room and it can be stressful or scary for children. Trying to normalize the experience of the child is one of the Child Life Specialist goals. This can be accomplished by providing age appropriate activities and play opportunities. Sometimes this can mean taking a rattle to a baby, sometimes it means sitting down and playing a board game with a teen, doing arts and crafts and many, many more!
There is also medical play. Sometimes a Child Life Specialist can provide activities that help the child express what he or she is going through with a play medical kit and a doll… the child can take the pressure of the doll, read its temperature, give it a shot, etc. Some art activities like painting using needless syringes can be helpful for children that are afraid of shots. Possibilities are endless!
As far as procedural preparation, the Child Life Specialist can explain to a child using age-appropriate vocabulary and information, as well as some props, a procedure or a surgery that he will have and what to expect. One of the aspects that make hospitalizations a scary thing is losing control… by being told what is going to happen and what to expect as well as if there is some decision making where the child can be included, the child gains back a little bit of control, helping him/her to feel better about the experience.
One of the aspects that I love about Child Life is that they don’t lie. They use age appropriate language but they don’t sugar coat things. If it will hurt they let the child know. Child Life Specialists are also children’s advocates and they arrange for parents to be present when possible and for children to be part of the decision making when appropriate. We always have choices… maybe I cannot choose on whether to have an IV or not, but I can choose if I want it on my right or on my left arm. Choices empower children, they feel acknowledged and are therefore more willing to cooperate.
Unfortunately Child Life Specialists do not have magic wands. Sometimes an intervention can go… not as planned! However Child Life Specialists are resourceful people that are there to help you and your child have an easier-less stressful- hospital stay.
In big Children’s Hospitals, Child Life programs are well-staffed. They can have many CLS assigned to different areas. In other hospitals there are not enough CLS to go around. When this is the case CLS prioritize their day and get to see only those patients that have a greater need. However if you know about the program, you can ask your nurse if there is a CLS available and she may be able to see if there is something they can do to help your child (or you!) cope with his/her hospitalization.
It would be great to have Child Life Specialists in every hospital of the world! It is a big dream that has a long way to go! But people like you can help spread the word about Child Life and why their work is so important for our children!
Life in the hospital is different… only those who have experienced it know it. Time as we know it seems to disappear- it can go too slow or extremely fast, situations change in seconds, you are face to face to that very thin thread we call life. It is true, I can say that I have lived some of the saddest moments in the hospital but I also have witnessed the most loving acts ever! And this is because when we are vulnerable, we show our true selves and the connections are at a heart level. Beautiful heart to heart connections.
Now you know and if for some reason you end up with one of your children in the hospital, you can ask for a Child Life, trust me, it makes a big difference! And if you found this information to be useful, please share it!
If you would like to know more about Child Life you can visit http://www.childlife.org