Healthcare can be scary and intimidating – especially to a child. Fear and intimidation amplify when cancer enters the equation.
Luckily for Acadiana residents, there is a team of specialists at Women’s & Children’s Hospital who help patients, their families and their loved ones quell fear and intimidation through a fun, individualized approach to healthcare.
The Child Life program at Women’s & Children’s Hospital officially began on Oct. 14, 2008 with the arrival of Janie Eldridge, the initial Child Life Specialist. The program since has grown to include Francesca Kizer, a second full-time Child Life Specialist, and Julie Mentel, a part-time Child Life Specialist.
Women’s & Children’s Hospital pioneered the program in Acadiana and remains the only hospital in the region to offer Child Life services. Combined, the team sees an average 25 children a day in Pediatric Intensive Care, Pediatrics, Sedation, Neonatal Intensive Care and the Kids ER.
“Not all families know how to help children cope with what is happening. We can teach the child coping mechanisms to make blood work, for instance, less intimidating,” Eldridge said. “Everything is based off of relationships. Trust takes time.”
Child Life Specialists utilize age-appropriate approaches and techniques to help pediatric patients, their families and their loved ones better understand procedures and treatment options. Understanding alleviates the unknown and the fear and intimidation that come with it.
"The program at Women’s & Children’s Hospital is more integrated in the plan of care, with greater interaction between the Child Life Specialists, physicians and nurses than at larger hospitals that have the program,” Kizer explained. “We’re all on the same page.”
Participation in the Child Life program begins with a choice. The child decides if they want to have Child Life as part of their individual plan of care.
“Often, this is the first choice they get when in the hospital,” Kizer said. “Children can choose to not work with us. Caregivers can choose not to become involved with us. If the child and caregiver are not on board with us, there’s not far we can go with our job. That is why such a big part of our job is building a relationship of trust with the families. We want them to know that this is not just a job to us. We truly care. We truly want to want to make hospitalization a positive experience for their child.”
Child Life services do not eliminate discomfort. Instead, the specialists utilize various, scientifically proven techniques to help child patients cope and become less intimidated by various forms of treatment. In the Emergency Room, especially, distraction becomes an effective tool.
“We are here to help the patients focus on something else – like a game on the iPad or an I Spy Book – during lab draws or IV starts,” said Mentel, who recently began providing Child Life Services in the Kids ER and NICU. “Some patients cope by watching the procedure. We are there to support them if that is what they choose.”
Play not only makes the hospital a more welcoming environment for children, it also lays the foundation on which Child Life Specialists may build a relationship of trust.
“After a relationship is established, I can then educate each child uniquely about the hospital, procedure or illness,” Eldridge said. “It always goes back to being personal and learning about the patient and his/her needs.”
Patients in the Pediatric Oncology program at Women’s & Children’s Hospital require a different, more intense level of care, Eldridge explained.
“There is a lot of education, support and relationship building at the beginning of treatment. You build a relationship for 2-3 years sometimes. It is a journey you take with a family,” she said. “Sometimes the patients and I will make crafts. Sometimes we bake cupcakes to help them to eat. Other times I just sit in the room and watch TV with them if they feel horrible. As Child Life Specialists, we make sure it doesn’t matter how they feel, we want them to know that we will be there for them no matter what, even if they don’t want to do anything but just sit in a room.”
The impact of a cancer diagnosis ripples through all support layers in a child’s life, Eldridge explained. So, providing effective Child Life services often requires Child Life Specialists to reach outside of the hospital walls through established programs like Monkey in My Chair and Beads of Courage.
“It affects siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, schools – that’s why we’re here. If everyone around the child copes well, the child will cope better,” she said. “We’re here to make it, hopefully, not as bad, to help make the journey a little better.”