For the Children

Le Bonheur’s Child Life specialists ensure patients’ comfort during stay

By Aisling Maki

Next to a full-size MRI machine at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital sits its identical miniature version, perfectly sized for a doll and decorated with friendly cartoon fishes and other smiling sea life creatures.

Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital intern Abby Shipman, right, uses a “distraction tool” with patient Megan Reynolds, 16, while neurodiagnostics technician Cissy Robinson attaches an epilepsy monitoring device.  

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

The pint-sized play copy’s purpose is to help pediatric patients understand the procedure, using a doll or a teddy bear for “practice.”

It’s one of the many ways Le Bonheur’s Child Life specialists work to calm children’s fears by explaining procedures in an age-appropriate manner that builds trust and provides comfort and security.

Child Life specialists use play, art and music to help answer children’s questions and process their emotions during what can be a frightening time.

Specialists also emotionally prepare children for surgery – allowing doctors and nurses to focus on clinical preparations – by offering distractions and medical play, and educate staff and family members about how to position children for comfort.

Dr. Derek Kelly, pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Le Bonheur and Campbell Clinic, said he regularly relies on Child Life specialists before and after procedures.

“People are coming at you with needles and they’re talking about surgeries and using big words you can’t understand,” Kelly said. “Child Life does a great job of distracting and calming down these kids and making the interaction seem as fun as possible, and decreasing the fear factor as much as possible.”

He said the post-operative use of Child Life specialists oftentimes results in the decreased need for pharmaceutical pain management.

“They’re alleviating a lot of their fear and helping them to control their pain, especially some of my more apprehensive patients,” Kelly said. “They do a lot more than just come and play with your patients; they’re really therapeutically quite helpful.”

When Lauren McCann started in Child Life at Le Bonheur seven years ago, she was one of only four specialists. Today, as Child Life manager, McCann is part of a team of 29 specialists scattered throughout the hospital.

Lauren McCann, manager of Child Life at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, visits with Brooks Talley, 8 months, and aunt Andrea Kee. Child Life therapy is an integral part of pediatric patient care at Le Bonheur. 

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

“People have a hard time seeing us with our toys and our games and think we’re doing nothing more than playing all day, but they get it when they see us with a 4-year-old who’s lying down calmly and seems to be having fun,” McCann said.

She said Le Bonheur CEO Meri Armour and the entire executive staff recognized the need to expand its Child Life Services.

“The hospital is really invested in the fact that children need more than medicine to get well,” McCann said. “So we really started to push towards every unit having their own specialist so we could build really become part of that team.”

It’s a growing field, and Le Bonheur offers a competitive, intensive, 14-week internship in Child Life. Only two interns are chosen each semester out of about 40 applicants, most of whom have degrees in child development or family studies.

“Le Bonheur has always held a very special place in my heart,” said Abby Shipman, a former Le Bonheur patient and current Child Life intern. “Children have a very deep need for psych-social care when they’re in the hospital, and oftentimes that’s forgotten about. It’s very important that we meet children’s needs and keep them developmentally on target. We make sure they’re on the right track with school, and we have kids who deal with bullying, so it’s a very special job and I feel very strongly about the psycho-social care of children.”

Child Life specialists also provide comfort for siblings by educating them about procedures in age-appropriate ways that include medical play and photo books that show them the equipment and various hospitals rooms.

“If a sibling comes to Le Bonheur to meet their baby brother or sister, we’re not just going to shove them into a hospital room with lights, equipment and tubes and bandages,” McCann said. “We’re going to take them aside and prepare them. We’ll take a picture of their sibling out to them first and explain all that equipment and take the mystery out before we bring them into the room.”

For pre-teens and teens – who McCann said are typically more standoffish and less likely to ask questions – building trust and keeping the lines of communication open is the key to helping ease their fears.

“They’ve been independent, making decisions on their own, and have a lot less of their parents in their business,” she said. “All of a sudden, they’re stuck in the hospital with their parents right there the whole time. So we try to assert boundaries and give control back when we can.”

Specialists support parents and other adult family members by educating them about diagnoses, options and procedures, and offering them choices in methods to help their child process the experience and keep their life as normal as possible under abnormal circumstances.

“Many people view us as the experts, but they’re the experts on their child,” McCann said. “We want them to give them the ability to share their information with us to best create a plan.”