More than a dozen years into Inova Loudoun Hospital’s Child Life program, the Certified Child Life Specialists and furry friend that make up the hospital’s current team have seen their mission evolve, even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Emily Phipps, Meghan Kenison and Cami Frickman all took different paths before deciding to be child life specialists. Phipps was already studying psychology and child development in college, so the marriage was perfect. Kenison and Frickman were turned on to their career path after already deciding to pursue nursing and then seeing the opportunity to work more closely with children experiencing challenges as too good to pass up.
Every March hospitals nationwide celebrate Child Life Month, in recognition of their team devoted to normalizing the hospital experience for children, and bringing comfort to hospitalized kids and their families.
In 2017, the Child Life team at Inova Loudoun added perhaps the hospital’s most popular staff member—a now six-year-old Golden Retriever named Jeremiah, who lives with Dr. Jill McCabe, the medical director of the pediatric emergency room and hospitalist services. Jeremiah works about 24 hours a week, and is always led by a child life specialist. While his bread and butter is comforting children, in the past year he has become equally as essential to the hospital’s staff as it navigates the COVID-19 pandemic. “He’s a good morale booster,” Frickman said.
Frickman recalls one day in particular in the past year that was particularly tough for the hospital’s respiratory therapist team, perhaps one of the most tested groups working on the front lines of the pandemic. A few pets and hugs with Jeremiah brought smiles and comfort in a difficult time.
“He works his magic without words,” Frickman said.
While things at the hospital had to change as the pandemic took hold last spring, Jeremiah only went about a month without being able to see patients. The Child Life team, however, stayed just as busy, and saw some of their own duties evolve.
Frickman acknowledged that hospitals, already scary places for some children, became even more intimidating for some during the pandemic, as doctors, nurses and staff had to don more PPE to protect themselves. Child Life nurses did their best to make light of those changes, comparing their construction hat-esque headwear to Bob the Builder or other cartoon figures.
The Child Life team has also had to use expand its toolbox to help with bereavement support for children and their families. In the past year, that meant having sometimes more video calls as opposed to in-person support, though they admit the latter is the preferred method.
The Child Life Specialists now make the rounds through the emergency and pediatric departments, as well as radiology, the ICU, and bereavement support.
A big misnomer of the Child Life program is that their duties extend only to hospitalized children when, in fact, the they provide comfort and support to entire families. This can mean working with children whose parents, grandparents or other loved ones are hospitalized or in end-of-life care. They can also provide support to youth or teens in the hospital awaiting placement at a mental health facility. The Child Life team began assembling coping kits with shampoo, soap and hygiene products, stress balls and coloring books, along with resources and literature on things like deep breathing techniques, to provide some level of comfort in what can be an uncomfortable situation.
Teens, in particular, are perhaps Jeremiah’s favorite audience, as they often allow him to take long naps on their hospital beds, a service duty he thoroughly enjoys, Phipps said.
“A lot of it is dealing with the family as a whole,” Kenison said of Child Life’s charges.
That can also mean acting as an advocate for families, like seeking permission for a parent to accompany children on ambulance rides. A significant amount of networking also comes into play for the team, like ensuring pediatric patients are linked up with care providers at another hospital if they are transferred.
Preparing pediatric patients for surgery also is a common charge for the team and, a few years ago, the hospital added the “Snoozer Cruiser” for patients to drive to the operatory room. The Child Life nurses also give tours ahead of a procedure to familiarize young patients with hospital equipment and what to expect. With COVID, some of that has gone by way of video, but they say that capability helps them to provide that support to patients at a time when trips to the hospital are either prohibited or not quite as enticing. The video capabilities also provide the Child Life team another way to connect with the local community, from young students eager to learn more about the services they provide, to first responders who may not be as familiar with them.
“We continue to do what we normally do, but in a different way,” Kenison said.
That has also meant adding a bubble gun to their toolbox, as Jeremiah’s favorite activity of popping bubbles had to change a bit during the pandemic. Gone for the moment are bubbles being blown by Child Life Specialists, but a bubble gun now does the trick so Jeremiah can perform for his patients.
Phipps, Kenison and Frickman said they can all see a day where Child Life specialists are more commonplace outside of hospitals. There has been a big push to make them mainstays in another anxiety-inducing environment for young children—dental offices.
More information on Inova’s Child Life program, along with some resources for young children, can be found at inovachildrens.org/child-life-services.