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Making hard moments into better memories

Making hard moments into better memories

As a certified child life specialist, I use therapeutic play to support children and their families in health care settings. My elevator speech is: we use play to decrease stress and increase coping, we teach children about their diagnosis and procedures and we celebrate big and small moments in the hospital.

But when I think about why I do what I do, I think about the six word memoir title I created during a narrative medicine self-care event:

“Making hard moments into better memories.”

As I walk into work on a typical Thursday, I know that my patients who are having a “good day” will be healthy enough to participate in pet therapy and a bedside magic show. We may even have a birthday to celebrate or an end-of-chemo party. But, what I don’t know is that there was a horrible car accident last night resulting in the death of a child’s mother and brother and leaving behind a grieving father. This young girl is now on life support in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) and is my newest patient.

On this particular day, I start by gathering updates from our incredible team including the nurses, physicians, chaplain, social worker and my emergency department child life colleague. That is when the real work begins. I first gather donated items to normalize this young girl’s hospital environment. Maybe a pink fleece blanket to brighten her hospital bed or a doll in a patient gown to give her a familiar companion. I then approach her father. I begin by explaining my role, and at this point, any heroic father will set aside his own grief and ask “how will I tell my daughter?” We speak about developmentally appropriate language to use, ways to create positive memories of his son and wife and I provide him with grief resources. I print photos of his family to place in his daughter’s bed and on the walls to personalize her hospital room.

Later in the afternoon, she wakes up, is taken off of the ventilator and placed on oxygen. I approach her carefully and cautiously, getting down on her level and introducing myself. “My name is Kelsey and I am here to make you as comfortable as possible in the hospital and to help your worries go away.” I provide reassurance and explain the many tubes and medical equipment on her body. As necessary, I provide distractions, including movies and activities to look forward to or techniques to stay calm during a difficult procedure. Most of all, I provide a safe space and hospital confidante — following her lead, assessing the right time to share the most difficult news alongside her father, whose heart is broken.

The best part of my job is when children, faced with life’s most challenging events, heal– not just physically, but emotionally. When they smile for the first time during a music therapy session. Or when they use their arm covered in IV equipment to engage in an intervention with art therapy, because they understand that it is just a soft straw and not a needle. And when they feel proud after holding still through a CT scan because they were prepared and knew what to expect.

Working with critically ill and injured children, I often get asked how I get through the day. I reflect: to make the hard moments into better memories. Because I know that ten years from now, this little girl will be a teenager. And she will snuggle with her hospital fleece blanket and hold onto her mementos of her mother and brother, and when she returns to the doctor for a follow up visit, she will not feel scared, but will feel excited to visit her hospital family, knowing that they will help her and not hurt her.

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About the Author

Kelsey Mora
Kelsey Mora

Kelsey Mora MA, CCLS, LPC is a certified child life specialist in the in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Advocate Children's Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill. Kelsey is originally from Omaha, Neb. and is a great asset to Spanish speaking children and families because she is also bilingual.