At East Tennessee Children's Hospital, our Child Life Specialists ease anxiety through the power of play.
We currently have 15 staff members that are dedicated to one crucial part of a child’s daily life: play. These individuals serve as cheerleaders, confidantes and advocates to patients who may be frightened by or unfamiliar with the hospital setting. Beloved by patients, the Child Life Specialists at Children’s Hospital believe in the power of play as a method of healing, growing and developing.
Why Play Matters
This year, the Child Life Department celebrated its 35th anniversary at Children’s Hospital. The program began in 1978 with longtime staff members Laura Barnes, now the Vice President for Patient Care Services and Chief Nursing Officer, and Eleanor Stevens. It was the first program of its kind in Tennessee and predates the Child Life Council, which is the governing body of the field. Since then, the department has grown to cover all inpatient units, the Emergency Department, outpatient clinics and the Radiology Department.
“It’s what makes pediatric hospitals like us unique,” said Shannon McBride, Child Life Specialist. “Patients and families are usually anxious when they hear the word surgery, but we try to prepare them and reduce their anxiety.”
To do so, the specialists provide age-appropriate, hands-on explanations to demonstrate procedures, like inserting an I.V.
“We give them teddy bears to practice finger pokes and insulin shots so they can see how it works,” said McBride, who works frequently with children diagnosed with diabetes. “Patients are able to get control and realize that it’s not as scary as it seems.”
Meredith Goodfellow, Child Life Specialist in the Radiology Department, spends her days preparing children for X-rays, tests and sedation. She was the first Child Life Specialist in that department and has earned the nickname iPad Lady for her use of an iPad to distract patients during procedures.
“I play with them to get them to drink the contrast, which they usually don’t love to do,” she said. “We also use simple terms to explain what will happen. When I say ‘spaghetti noodle’ to explain how big a catheter will be, I see the anxiety in parents go down instantly. When the parents are less stressed, the children are less stressed and vice versa.”
Because Children’s Hospital patients range from infants to 21-year-olds, a Child Life Specialist must be prepared with a wide variety of activities and distraction methods.
“Sometimes it’s to teach, familiarize and desensitize,” said Kristin Wells, Child Life Specialist. “And sometimes it’s just for fun—with no real purpose. You try to continually assess what is going on at any given moment and do what you can to help, support and comfort.”
The Child Life Department is an essential part of Children’s Hospital’s focus on family-centered care. Led by Mary Pegler, Director, the staff members are trained specifically to play in a constructive, healing and educating manner.
“We are teaching them coping skills to use when they get anxious for the rest of their lives, like deep breathing,” said McBride. “We play with them because that’s what children do, and we want to normalize the hospital setting.”
For the Child Life Specialists, building relationships through play and teaching has resulted in positive patient and family interactions. Wells recalled a particularly touching moment on Valentine’s Day: “The most amazing little boy brought me a valentine. It said something about the flowers needing the sun and the rain. As I was thanking him, his mom said, ‘You make this easier for us. You make diabetes easier for us.’ It tears me up to think of it again.”