The long-awaited addition of Diamond Children’s to University Medical Center came with another valuable addition, the expansion of the child life specialists program. Two-and-a-half years ago UMC had two child life specialists; today there are eight.
“We really expressed the need to have child life specialists wherever children are, and that includes patient care units, as well as pediatric outpatient areas, the transplant clinic, radiology, the GI lab, even the operating room,” says Lori Throne, director of women’s and children’s services since 2006.
The child life specialists at Diamond Children’s provide emotional comfort and support for children experiencing hospital procedures or changes in medical conditions. However, they also provide support for children who have family members in the hospital.
While the primary role of child life specialists is to explain conditions or procedures, their job sometimes is to distract those who may be experiencing pain or fear.
“To watch children – even in the most critical stages of illness or injury or the most severe pain – be distracted by something they love is really amazing,” Throne says.
In addition to spending time with patients, the child life specialists arrange all outside activities for the children, such as Snickers, a miniature horse that comes through the hospital to visit a few times a month.
“By using any tool, whether it’s a toy, or a visitor, or an animal, you can really change a child’s day,” Throne says. “There is just something about animals that makes you forget about everything else.”
While the child life specialists do get to have fun with patients, they also see a lot of sadness.
“I think people sometimes misunderstand child life specialists,” Throne says. “It is not just coloring with kids for distraction, but they actually see some really sad things and it takes a lot to be able to handle that.”
While Diamond Children’s has allowed the program to expand, the specialists cannot be in all places at once, and sometimes choosing when and where to be can be difficult.
“Sometimes the staff’s ideas of the highest priority are those who may feel pain or be very scared,” Throne says. “The greatest reward is when they lower a child’s stress and anxiety by getting them through a tough situation.”
All child life specialists have obtained a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in a child life field, have completed a 480-hour clinical internship and have passed the child life certification exam.
“In all of their degree programs they get book knowledge and courses in human studies, but really that’s just paper until they get that 480 hours of internship work,” Throne says. “The senior specialists here have really prepared an outstanding program to make sure that whether it be medicine, surgery, trauma care, cancer care or emergency services, they get full hours in all different areas.”
Diamond Children’s child life specialists are trained to work in every area of the hospital and, while some have areas where they are more comfortable, they are available wherever they are needed.
“When somebody first comes into the program, they might like infants or they might like ER, but we want everyone to have a degree of general skill,” Throne says. “When they are here in the hospital, they have a phone or pager in their pocket, and they go wherever needed.”
The child life specialists at UMC stagger shifts and try to be available at all times.
“The area of greatest need for the night shift is the Emergency Department, and we have staff there until 10 or 11 p.m.,” Throne says.
The specialists work with new patients, who may be here for just one visit, and with returning patients who frequent the hospital for treatments.
“These kids form unique bonds with their specialists and will sometimes ask for them by name,” Throne said. “That is a really rewarding experience.”
As patients continue to visit Diamond Children’s, the child life specialists will continue to help them through their medical experience.
“We always get notes from parents about how much it meant to them to have the child life specialists here,” Throne says. “They stress how much calmer they were because their child was distracted, and they just can’t say enough about them.”