Child life specialists provide special care for children and their families

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We all know that injuries and illnesses are a normal part of growing up. When it comes to children who are sick, health-care providers want to provide them with the best care possible. Paediatric Services at Windsor Regional Hospital (WRH) is all about caring for sick kids. Children are treated daily for conditions ranging from viruses and broken bones to much more serious issues such as pneumonia, cancer, diabetes, asthma and trauma related injuries.

The goal at WRH is to make the hospital environment, which can sometimes be frightening for children, a safe and warm place while receiving treatment. When Paediatric Services transferred to the Met Campus of the hospital in 2005, enhancements were added to the program including child life specialists as non-medical members of the health-care team. Research has shown that providing child life services to children and their families is vitally important to ensuring optimal coping during challenging life events such as surgery, serious illness or the death of a family member.

Windsor Regional Hospital Child Life staff are well trained individuals, holding a minimum of an undergraduate degree and child life certification. Their specialized areas of study include child development, psychology and art therapy, A child life specialist’s role, as part of the multidisciplinary team is to reduce the stress and anxiety that is often associated with hospital visits and stays.

With a focus on family centered care, the child life team assists young patients by using therapeutic play activities as preparation for procedures. The use of cloth dolls, medical play kits, medical equipment, art therapy, and educational materials encourage children to play through their experience and ensures they are given accurate information to clear up any misconceptions. Medical play helps children express their feelings and understand the hospital surroundings and events that will occur during their stay.

Child life specialists at WRH have developed some unique ideas to enhance their work with children and families. One innovation is the ‘Surgical Safari’ program, a preoperative tour offered once a week for children with scheduled surgeries. A DVD was produced entitled ‘Liam’s Journey through Surgery’ which depicts a child and his mother preparing for paediatric day surgery. The DVD follows the child and parent through the process of pre-assessment, admission, assessment, entering surgery and what to expect in post-op. The DVD provides advice on how to prepare your child for their hospital experience and ease any fears they may have. The project was funded by Windsor Essex Care for Kids Foundation, a local fundraising initiative and was selected for an OHA HealthAchieve Leading Practices Electronic Display Award in 2007.

Other Child Life staff initiatives include Paediatric Coping Kits – a small bag of activities provided to infants and children when they enter the emergency department and awaiting treatment or admission. The kits are geared to various developmental ages and include items for coping (pinwheels), comfort (stuffed animals) and an activity to keep them occupied (colouring books).

Child Life specialists also use play therapy as a very effective way to communicate with children. Play is a child’s normal form of communication and children express themselves more fully through their play. Play is a non-threatening way of expression and helps with self expression and strengthens coping skills.

Art Therapy is yet another method used by child life specialists. A child can use art to sort out and cope with difficult feelings and experiences, and it often provides a window of insight for the health-care team into the child’s emotional state. Art can be relaxing, provide distraction from pain and increase self-esteem.

Child life services have close links with other programs that can assist children while in the hospital including the ‘Fools For Health’ clown doctor program that provides laughter and fun while in the hospital. The ‘Fools For Health’ program was first initiated at WRH and has since expanded to other health-care facilities in the region.

“As child life specialists, we encourage children to express their fears and concerns as a result of hospitalization,” says Allison Riggs, Child Life Specialist. “By listening to the child, we can develop strategies that will enable them to improve coping and reduce stress while collaboratively working with parents and the multidisciplinary team.”

A child life specialist is dedicated to assisting children and their families while in the hospital by relieving the stress and anxiety that accompanies unfamiliar procedures and surroundings. The Child Life Council, who represent this special group of professionals endorse their training as it assists their work with children to manage stressful and potentially traumatic experiences while in hospital. For more information on Child Life Specialists, go to www.childlife.org.