Confessions of a child life specialist
March is Child Life Month. The goal is to raise awareness about the child life profession and share how child life specialists can help parents, siblings, and patients cope with traumatic life events. In honor of this month, our own child life specialist, Annie Brandes, shares real-life stories from her experiences at Advocate Children’s Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill.
“A child life … what?”
This puzzled remark is the most common response I receive from people when asked the age-old question, “So, what do you do for a living?” “I’m a child life specialist,” I repeat. And—as I’ve become all too familiar with the flow of this conversation—before they can even ask the next question, I clarify: “My job is to help kids and families with their coping at the hospital.”
Then I typically share that I work with patients experiencing challenging procedures or new diagnoses in order to decrease their fear and anxiety in the unfamiliar and often stressful medical environment.
Truth be told though, I wish there was so much more that others both inside and outside of the healthcare setting knew about my career. For example, I wish they knew how great of a privilege it is to help patients and parents through perhaps one of the most challenging moments in their lives. I wish they knew that there is a lot of joy that comes with my job – that I get to spend quality time with kids and watch as their trust, empowerment, and ability to express their feelings grows through play. And lastly, if time and interest allowed, I wish they knew my top five favorite memories as a child life specialist because I believe such moments speak for themselves:
- Prior to an outpatient lab appointment, the mother of a 9-year-old girl informed me that her daughter had needed three people to hold her down for a blood draw the previous week. With appropriate pain management and comfort measures and with the proper preparation and distraction, the patient completed her blood draw holding still while engaging in play and conversation with me. Her face as she excitedly stated, “I’m done already?!?” was priceless.
- As with all pediatric bereavements, I offered the parents of a 2-month old infant memory-making opportunities so they could have keepsakes to hold on to after their son’s passing. The parents requested bereavement photography as they only had one photo of the patient and his father. As the photographer viewed the breathtaking photos with me later, I teared up at a photo that looked almost identical to the one the patient’s father had shown me earlier in the week. “The father requested this one specifically,” the photographer shared.
- A four-year-old patient and I created a body tracing to help her learn about her new diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes. She carefully drew in internal organs and spent the majority of our play session processing her experience by practicing glucose checks and insulin injections on different places around the body drawing. When one of her physicians asked about the drawing later, she proudly pointed to the pancreas and identified it as a part of her body that “doesn’t work right.”
- I responded to a trauma in the emergency room for a 5-year-old girl who had been in a car accident with her mother. Her mother was in unstable condition just one room over and the patient was expressing extreme distress out of pain, fear, and confusion. I was able to connect with the patient and provide a calm and reassuring presence amidst the chaos of the trauma bay. She relaxed and soon became capable of listening to directions and answering questions of both the ED staff and first responders. I stayed with her to provide familiarity and to normalize the situation through adaptive play until her mother was stable and other family members had arrived.
- A 14-year-old patient with a significant cardiac history and a lengthy hospital stay was having a difficult time expressing and processing his feelings. To encourage self-expression and improve his coping, we engaged in a therapeutic activity in which the patient drew different faces on inflated balloons. When illustrating his own emotions on these “balloon people,” the patient drew a sad face unmasking the patient’s desire to see his family more, an angry face expressing his frustration regarding the indecisiveness about his upcoming surgery, and a smiling face on which he wrote, “Happy to see child life.”
While each of these moments is significant to me in its own way, the differences between them reveal one of my favorite aspects of my job – the fact that no two patient interactions are the same. And, in a profession in which I find fulfillment in every diverse experience, I might as well confess: I have the best job there is.
About the Author
Annie Brandes is a Certified Child Life Specialist at Advocate Children’s Hospital - Park Ridge. She loves working in her dream job on the pediatric inpatient unit as she provides coping support to patients, parents, and siblings experiencing the challenges of hospitalization.