Imagine being a nine-year-old girl, or a fourteen-year-old boy. Your childhood is rolling along just fine. You go to school. You play with dolls or video games. You visit friends and play dodge ball. Then, one day, an adult tells you something is wrong. “You are sick. You have to go into the hospital. You are going to be there for a while, maybe a long time.”
Suddenly, it dawns on you: You aren’t going to see your friends; you aren’t going to school; you are going to be away from the familiar comforts of home.
Children who have experienced such things easily remember the day they received this kind of news. Some children report, “… it was the day my childhood ended.” Even as adults, we would not like to receive such news, but for hundreds upon hundreds of children each year in the state of Mississippi, this is their end of innocence. Times like this can be frightening.
“Hospitals can be a very overwhelming place for children and families,” says Tiffany Key, who has been a Certified Child Life Specialist at Batson Children’s Hospital since December 2010. “They are coming into an environment where there’s unknown terminology, things they don’t understand, and people are in and out of their room. Kids are seeing nurses in scrubs, doctors in white coats, and they are going through various treatments and procedures. It can be very scary. That is when Child Life comes in.”
Child Life Defined
Child Life is an umbrella term for a spectrum of specialized pediatric services that focus on the psychosocial well-being of child-patients. Certified Child Life Specialists (CCLS) possess a deep understanding of the cognitive and physical development of children–including the needs and unique psychological changes that accompany different stages of development.
Child life specialists use a wide range of activities (appropriate for each age) to help support the child-patient to cope with hospitalization, medical procedures, extended illness, or even death and dying.
“As child life specialists, we view ourselves as partners in the medical healing,” Key says, “but we focus on emotional healing and helping kids and families get through the experience. We meet with the patient, assess how they are doing, and then we work closely with children in the development of coping plans. One of the greatest assets we have is the use of play. We use and focus on play for different reasons. Play has a real purpose and is invaluable with everything we do. Play is how children learn and how they express themselves and their feelings. It’s how they socialize and interact with others. You can learn a lot about children by watching them play.”
While play can be enriching and joyful in and of itself, in the hands of a masterful child life specialist, play is not “just play.” In the Child Life Program at Batson Children’s Hospital, play helps educate the child-patient about their condition, the procedures they will receive, and the specific medical devices and tools used in their procedures. Play, and what child life specialists call “medical play,” provides a hands-on way for children to become psychologically prepared for what can be a challenging situation for them.
“Medical play desensitizes them to the process. Part of the way we do this is through the use of real medical equipment,” Key explains. “When kids are ready, we let them manipulate the medical equipment, such as stethoscopes and IV tubes, and use blank dolls. We also have teaching dolls for kids with new diagnoses, to help illustrate for them what it means to receive a PICC Line (peripherally inserted central catheter), for instance. These dolls can be quite expensive ($350 – $1200), but they are vital to our process with the child. It gives them a sense of mastery of the situation, which leads them to feel more at ease with what they are experiencing. All of this is done in preparation for actual procedures, and a child life specialist accompanies them through every step of the experience.”
Child life specialists teach children to relax and breathe through procedures, use distraction methods to ease the stress of the child-patient, and provide follow-up after procedures to ensure that the child is doing well emotionally. Additionally—knowing that a child being in the hospital impacts the whole family unit—child life specialists focus on normalizing the hospital experience for young children, teens, siblings, and parents alike through various events, like outings and pet therapy, and through other resources such as support groups for siblings, parents and teens (which recently created a “Teen Bill of Rights”).
These are just a few of the ways the Child Life Program at Batson provides care for families… families like the Moores of Newton, Mississippi.
Bravehearts: Saundra and Michael “Big Mike” Moore
In May of 2010, life became very complicated, very expensive, and very emotionally challenging for the Moore family of Newton, Mississippi. Michael “Big Mike’ Moore, 14, developed a painful bump on his chin. Some people thought it was a pimple. A fellow churchgoer suggested it might be a spider bite and to have it checked out.
Saundra Moore, Michael’s mother, took him to a physician in Newton. In addition to having high blood pressure, initial blood tests revealed that something was not right with Michael’s system. Doctors conducted further blood work and the Moores were sent home to wait.
“On May 10, 2010, we got a call and were told that Michael’s numbers were not good,” Saundra Moore remembers. “His had gone higher…much higher, and I knew what that meant automatically.” She knew what it meant because Saundra Moore already has her own health challenges that necessitate frequent dialysis.
Saundra and Michael immediately made the hour and a half trek from Newton to Batson Children’s Hospital. Michael spent four days in intensive care where the full reality of Michael’s condition became known. Michael’s kidneys were failing. He has been receiving dialysis ever since.
“It’s hard,” says Michael. “It’s hard on me and it’s hard on my mother too. She has to get her own dialysis. Then, even though she’s tired and weak, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday we travel all the way from Newton to Jackson. It’s costing my mother $500 a month.”
To hear Saundra and Michael Moore speak of their daunting health challenges, one wonders how they can keep going. Saundra’s answer is clear: “Child Life.”
“Child Life has helped us get through,” Saundra Moore says, giving child life specialist, Tiffany Key, a hug. “I’m not going to lie. This has been hard. Some days you just want to give up. The other day, Michael broke down and said, ‘I’m just so tired of this.’ I told him I know because I am too, but it is what we have to do to survive. It is what we have to do right now, and I say ‘right now’ for Michael because he is on the list to get a kidney. One day he will get one, but even after he gets one, and gets better, we plan to come back over here to support the other kids here until they get better too.”
When asked about the time he spends with child life specialists at Batson, Michael’s face beams with a smile, “They make it fun. My favorite thing is playing UNO and beating Miss Tiffany in pool.”