“It’s pretty miraculous, actually.”
It’s the middle of Child and Family Life Manager Jennifer Guilliams’ shift, and one of the specialists on her team is carefully deconstructing a LEGO kit, hiding colorful plastic bricks all over the pediatric intensive care unit.
Child Life Specialist Sarah McAlister wasn’t just doing this to encourage imagination and play. Piece by piece, she was helping one LEGO-loving little patient at Kentucky Children’s Hospital get back on her feet.
“This child loves LEGOs, and Sarah just started taking the pieces apart and hiding them all over the unit so the patient could walk to find them,” said Jennifer. “She’s going to collect them and build the LEGO set, but in the process, what we’re doing is we’re getting her to walk—she just doesn’t realize it.”
This type of individualized, developmentally appropriate care is exactly what the Child Life team at Kentucky Children’s Hospital is known for. Their job is to look at the hospital experience through the eyes of a child and figure out ways to help them cope and better understand what they’re experiencing.
“Children learn about the world around them through play,” said Jennifer. “That’s how they process emotion, that’s how they learn social rules—they just play it out. That’s their language, and we like to say that’s the work of a child.”
The work of the Child Life Specialists at Kentucky Children’s Hospital focuses on making hospital visits a little less scary for patients and families. That could mean encouraging parents to provide comfort holds—which are more like cuddles or hugs—during procedures like IV placements. Or the team might use alternative focus techniques like blowing bubbles to distract a child while a procedure is underway. But perhaps the most important technique is preparation—because if a child knows what to expect, the unknown just doesn’t seem quite as scary.
Sometimes that preparation means demonstrating how IV placement works on a patient’s teddy bear, like Sarah McAlister did with six-year-old Henley Thurman. Henley has a fear of needles, but she was able to make it through the procedure thanks to Sarah’s help. She still refers to “Dr. Sarah” as her favorite part of her experience.
“I can’t express how appreciative we are of everybody,” said Henley’s mom, Lindsay. “They were just very attentive, very loving, very caring. They just made us feel comforted, and they made her feel as comforted as possible in her situation as they could.”
“Having a child in the hospital is hard for the entire family,” said Dr. Scottie Day, Physician in Chief of Kentucky Children’s Hospital. “The Child Life staff play a huge role in alleviating parents’ stress and fear. We’ve heard parents say that they’ve benefitted from Child Life just as much as their children have, and learned valuable coping skills that they can use going forward.”
For Ashlee Olson, Child Life Specialist in the newborn intensive care unit (NICU), preparation means working closely with her tiniest patients’ older siblings. Before meeting “their baby” for the first time, Ashlee helps prepare them with pictures of their baby and their baby’s space, as well as a special teaching doll. Ashlee uses the doll to show siblings how certain devices and equipment are used, from inserting a breathing tube to putting an IV in, making it less scary when they meet their new brother or sister.
Because many NICU families are grieving the loss of a “normal” newborn experience, Ashlee knows it’s important to turn small moments into big memories. Whether she’s behind the camera snapping pictures for a newborn photoshoot or making diplomas for upcoming NICU graduates, Ashlee continually finds ways to mark the journeys, stories and milestones of each of her patients.
“If there’s something to celebrate, we’re going to celebrate it,” said Ashlee. “Your baby got their breathing tube out today? That’s a heck of a milestone. You’re getting to hold your baby for the first time and it’s been two weeks since he was born? We’re going to celebrate that. We’re going to honor all of the small positives we can have here in the hospital.”
Perhaps even more exciting than the milestones are the “ah-ha” moments the Child Life team witnesses every day.
“It’s that moment when a child gets it and masters something all on their own,” Jennifer said. “It’s nothing that we’ve done, it’s what they’ve done themselves—and that makes it even better. When you see a child get through something that’s really challenging, and they smile and they light up and just know they got it, it’s pretty miraculous, actually.”
“These are the moments that sustain us,” said Sarah. “There’s a quote: ‘To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived, this is to have succeeded,’ and that’s definitely how I feel. I cannot take away any of the things our patients and our families are going through. But if for one minute I can make them feel seen, feel heard, and feel supported, then I’ve done my job.”