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Child Life Specialists: A Day In The Life

March 01, 2016

Baystate Children’s Hospital is filled with doctors, nurses, and other highly-trained experts who have dedicated their careers to caring for our youngest patients. Among these professionals, though, is one group of caregivers who bear a special knack for calming fears and evoking laughter: child life specialists. Child life specialists are decked in signature purple uniforms and are spread throughout the Children’s Hospital, armed with expertise in helping children and their families overcome life’s most challenging experiences. In short, they help families navigate the challenging paths that life can take.

“The bonds we develop with children and their families, in partnership with our colleagues across the hospital, can be incredibly strong,” Child Life Manager Jessie Hagerman said. “We all work as a team to help bring about the best patient experience possible.”

Bridging the Gap Between Families and Medical Staff

At Baystate, child life specialists provide support in pediatric operating rooms, the Sadowsky Family Pediatric Emergency Department, pediatric procedure Unit, the pediatric and adolescent inpatient units, Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, radiology, the children's surgery center, and the children’s specialty center. No matter where a specialist is assigned, the work they perform on a daily basis is a lesson in human compassion. Child life specialists spend their days and nights helping to interpret all of the medical information in ways patients and families can understand and can sometimes help to bridge the gap between terrified families and expert medical staff.

“They can be found at the head of the bed in the trauma room focusing on the child’s experience to ease their anxieties through the scariest moment of their life,” Hagerman said. “They are bedside on the inpatient unit explaining what cancer is to a newly diagnosed child and their family. They can be seen walking in the healing garden with a teen who is finally able to get out of their hospital room for fresh air and sunshine, or spending time in the art corner working on a therapeutic art project with a patient whose been having trouble expressing themselves after a traumatic experience.”

Adapting from Moment to Moment

In many cases, child life specialists have the conversations that most people could not imagine having to endure. No two days are ever the same, and the duties of each day are dictated by the needs of each individual patient and family. In fact, it changes hour by hour. They may be providing support to the siblings and family of a child who passed away, helping to make memories by molding hand prints, or saving locks of hair. The following hour, they might be on another unit organizing a dance party or playing a game. The span of their role and the services they provide is vast.

“They are in the treatment room guiding a child and parent through a blood draw, IV start, or dressing change, next to a crib providing education to parents about their child’s development and ways to calm and sooth their infant, or providing much needed respite while parents take a break,” Hagerman said. “They can be seen showing a child what a port feels like on a teaching doll, and how it is accessed to give them their medications, teaching a chronically ill child how to be compliant with their medications or frequent treatments, or coaching a nervous parent and child through the anesthesia process.”

Specializing in Kids Being Kids

Each child life specialist has a strong background in child development and family systems. When they aren’t helping a child get through the most challenging moments, Baystate specialists know that “kids are kids” and creatively promote effective coping through play, preparation, education, and self-expression activities.

“They can be found decorating casts, crutches and patient rooms, and throwing parties for birthdays, graduations, holidays or treatment milestones,” Hagerman said. “They are listening, encouraging, dancing, singing, playing, advocating, hugging, distracting, high-fiving, and helping to provide activities to pass time while in the hospital. They make trips to local schools, teaching classmates of our chronically ill patients about what their friend is going through so they have a better understanding and can be supportive when it’s time for our patient to return to school. They can be found cleaning toys, sorting donations, greeting donors, coordinating special events and visitors, supervising volunteers and students, and even serve as assistants to the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, and the Tooth Fairy.”

Families often say that Baystate child life specialists bring laughter during dark days, reprieve from bad news, courage in the face of fear, and hope amidst daunting challenges. Hagerman says that these bonds are mutually beneficial.

“There is nothing better than preparing a child or family member for a tough experience and then seeing them get through it successfully, knowing that your work made a difference, she said. “We are often with them for some of the most difficult experiences of their lives. It’s an honor to be allowed into their ‘circles,’ to be a part of their journey, and to witness the resiliency and bravery that they show us daily.

Watch our video, What is Comfort?, to see our child life specialists in action.