“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.

A close-up photo of a Child Life team member’s hand picking up a LEGO off the floor.
“We use a lot of different techniques so they can understand [what’s] happening,” said Jennifer.

“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.”

A photo of Jennifer Guilliams smiling for the camera as she poses with her arms crossed. She is a white woman with mid-length blonde hair. She is wearing a black cardigan over a black top.
“Our goal is always positive experiences,” said Jennifer.

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.”

A candid photo of Child Life Specialist Sydney Houzenga and a patient playing with bubbles while sitting at a table. Sydney is a young white woman with mid-length brunette hair. She is wearing a short-sleeve gray t-shirt and a yellow medical face mask.
“We have to look at that child and figure out the best approach [for them],” said Jennifer.

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.

A candid photo of two UK HealthCare employees sitting with a patient in one of the Child Life rooms, which has a giant fake tree trunk in the middle of it. The patient is a white teenage girl with a bald head. She is wearing a pink hoodie.
The Kentucky Forest Industries Association Log-A-Load Playroom is filled with toys, games, and an interactive tree.

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.

A photo of Henley Thurman’s stuffed bear. It has an IV in its arm, and is wearing a white t-shirt that has a picture of Henley on it.
Demonstrating on toys like Henley’s bear is just one way Sarah helps her patients.

“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.”

An over-the-shoulder shot of Jennifer (left) and Ashlee Olson (right) lifting up a young patient out of their bed. The patient has several monitors hooked up to them, as well as an oxygen tube attached to their nose. Ashlee is a young white woman with long blonde hair that has been curled. She is wearing a blue plastic cover over her clothes, a blue face mask, and round glasses.
“Each situation is completely different,” said Jennifer. “You take it one step at a time.”

“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.”

An over-the-shoulder shot of a mother playing kitchen with her child, a Child Life patient. The woman is a white woman with brown hair that is tied up in a bun. She is wearing a short-sleeve pink t-shirt over a long-sleeve white shirt, and a yellow face mask.
Toys like this kitchen set help kids and families feel a little more normal during their time at the hospital.

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.

A photo of Ashlee holding a colorful children’s toy above a young patient in a crib.
“I’ve learned so much from these babies, because sometimes our sickest babies are our happiest,” said Ashlee.

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.

A candid photo of Jennifer holding a heart-themed toy stethoscope in front of a young female patient. The patient is a young white girl in a white bucket hat and a pink and yellow strappy top.
“I’ve always felt such honor being able to help support a child,” said Jennifer.

“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.”

A candid photo of Christina Harper, a young patient, and her mother playing with wooden flowers. Christina is a white woman with long light brown hair. She is wearing dark blue scrubs and a light blue face mask.
Child Life team members can make lifelong impacts on their patients.

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.”

A close-up photo of a young patient looking into the camera as they lay in their bed.
“It’s the little things,” said Jennfier. “That moment when you get that engagement you’ve been trying for.”

“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.”

A candid photo of Sydney getting down on a patient’s level to hand them a toy, with Jennifer looking on in the background.
“We’re still giving, still trying, still present,” said Jennifer. “That’s what makes my team remarkable.”

Learn more about the work of the

Child Life team at Kentucky Children’s Hospital.

A photo of Malakai Roberts standing in front of a flowering bush as he smiles and looks off camera. He is a young Black boy with short curly black hair. He is wearing a short-sleeve gray shirt that reads “I am the dream.”A photo of Elizabeth (Betty) Kargbo sitting on a bed as she looks into the camera. She is a young Black toddler with dark hair in twists. She is wearing a pink and blue top that is tied at the shoulders.