Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Introducing Child Life Specialists

We like to keep our children out of hospital; the doctor's office is hopefully only for wellness visits, but what if? What if your child ends up having to go to hospital? How do you make their experience as pleasant as possible?
In the design of our new pediatric unit we've used patient feedback to create a comfortable and functional environment for children to receive care and to heal. Children's artwork lines the halls; there are comfortable nooks for reading, areas to play outside, a playroom and even a huge indoor tree to come together underneath. The area is beautiful, but there is at least one other crucial component to making a child's hospital experience the best it can be, the staff. I recently met with two of TMC's Child Life Specialists, Jolene and Lindsey, to find out more about their role in supporting children and their families. 
TMC for Children Preview Event

What is a Child Life Specialist? A Child Life Specialist is a highly trained professional who works with children, families, physicians, nurses, social workers and other therapists. Their goal is to make the hospital experience the best it can be for children and families. That means creating an environment that respects and incorporates the emotional well being of children and recognizes the family as part of the recovery process.
Lindsey plays with a young preschooler, enticing her to the playroom down the hallway. After three weeks of just receiving nutrition intravenously and having to lie in bed, the little girl's muscles are weak; time out of bed is exhausting, but absolutely necessary to her recovery. As a Child Life Specialist Lindsey has enough of a connection with the little girl to ease the patient's fear and anxiety about taking these steps along the hallway, and enough distance to encourage her and her family to push past some emotional barriers. Often, Lindsey explains, the family members are frightened and nervous too. In the playroom the little girl plays with toys that are similar to ones she knows from home, but also checks out the medical play toys that allow children to familiarize themselves with the equipment that is used on them. A little while later we're in the NICU (the Newborn Intensive Care Unit) delicately encouraging a baby to turn his head toward the toys, using toys and play to support development. 
Jolene, the Child Life Manager, begins to explain the subtle and complex role that child life specialist play, they are educators, playmates, counselors, and advocates, and then stops. "The best way for you to understand is to hear from the patients or the patient's family." She dials a phone number, not even having to look up the number and it is clear as she talks to the person on the other end of the line that this is a close relationship. She explains that the mother of a patient has agreed (enthusiastically) to come and explain the impact of Child Life Specialists on her family. 

Christina is there in minutes; she had been at her son Isaiah's side, as she has for the past 8 years, often at TMC. Before Isaiah was born they found out that he, the youngest of five children, had Spina bifida, and Christina traveled to Vanderbilt Hospital in Tennessee so that he might have the very first in utero surgery to address his spinal problems. Christina speaks with joy about her son and her other four children and with conviction about the importance of TMC for Children's Child Life Specialists in making her family's hospital experience the best it can be. Christina retells how it was the Child Life Specialists who helped her husband and her to decide who would stay with Isaiah way back when the practice was only to have one parent stay overnight and their other young children needed a parent to take care of them.  Now she says they let the whole family stay. How it was Child Life Specialists who reminded them to eat and to sustain themselves so that they could take care of Isaiah and his siblings. How the Child Life Specialists calmed and distracted Isaiah during procedures and taught his older brother techniques to calm himself before a procedure. That it was Jolene, who sat down with Christina and Bill's other four children when it became clear that Isaiah may not come home from the hospital and answered their questions. Christina describes the huge positive transition from a much more clinical setting eight years ago when they first came to TMC to the much more open environment that exists today in TMC for Children. Jolene backs Christina up saying that as the scientific evidence-based research came out demonstrating the importance of addressing the social, emotional and psychological well being - TMC responded. 
From the outside, the Child Life Specialist's job may look like playing, but they are  educating, comforting, and supporting. It is a highly nuanced role and one that the child life specialists have gone through extensive training to achieve. Their formal education always includes a Bachelors Degree in a related field and then specific training including a 480-hour internship. They can be found throughout TMC for Children, in the Emergency Room, the Pediatric ICU, Pediatrics, Surgery, the Newborn Intensive Care Unit and consulting with TMC's Pediatric Hospice. They are wherever children and families need them. 

Isaiah entered into TMC's Pediatric Hospice care shortly after I talked with Christina and Jolene. He passed away last Tuesday, July 19th loved by his family, friends and the staff at TMC for Children. You can read more about Isaiah at the Isaiah Bank's Fund Facebook Page
 You can find out more about TMC's Child Life Specialists here and about careers in Child LIfe at the Child Life Council (CLC) website where they describes the role of child life specialists.
The Child Life program at TMC is supported in part by monies raised through Children's Miracle Network. 


  1. Being a child life specialist is a very difficult job. Difficult in a sense that they will be taking care of children with chronic illness who are expected to die soon.

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  2. I certainly agree. The worse thing is, they may also see the suffering that these chronically ill children are experiencing yet they cannot do anything to lessen their suffering.

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  3. Children who are in the hospitals need to know the value of life. They should enjoy it even if they're there. Good thing there are child life specialists who can help with this type of problems.

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