Humber River Regional Hospital Child Life Specialist spreads smiles in Kenya

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Smiling comes easily to Jody Chatterton, especially when she’s doing something she loves – working with children. And for the 28 year-old certified Child Life Specialist at Humber River Regional Hospital in Toronto, her participation in a pediatric medical mission in Kenya at the end of last year brought new meaning to her career and opened her eyes to what Chatterton says are some very important life lessons.

“Professionally and personally, I have learned a lot about communication, verbal and non-verbal.How we interact with others is the key to how we live our lives. I was extremely blessed to have interacted with the people I met in Kenya.”

The city of Nakuru, a three hour “bumpy bus ride on a makeshift road” from Nairobi was Chatterton’s work destination from mid October to the beginning of November 2006. For two weeks, Chatterton worked at the Rift Valley Provincial General Hospital – which she describes as “army barracks” with tiny buildings and covered sidewalks – that cares for an overwhelming number of patients.

“Sometimes there was more than one child in a bed because of their lack of facilities and resources.”

Chatterton’s passion for working with children combined with a new curiosity for international travel led her to join Operation Smile – a private, not-for-profit, volunteer medical services organization that provides free reconstructive facial surgery and related healthcare to children.

As a seasoned Child Life Specialist and a rookie traveller (she’d only previously been as far as Halifax) Chatterton was determined to contribute as much as she could to this important project and her first big adventure overseas. Working as part of a professional medical team – participants came from several countries worldwide, including one other Canadian from Newfoundland – Chatterton prepared paediatric patients for surgery (burn repairs, restoration of cleft lip and palette) by using toys and pictures.

“Because of the diversity of the Humber River patient population I was really prepared to work with people who didn’t speak English,” Chatterton said.

“I was also prepared for their (the children’s) reactions in the Operating Room (OR) which was really valuable.” Unlike Humber River – where parents are always encouraged to accompany their children into the operating room for the child’s anesthetic induction – hospitals in Kenya don’t allow parents access into the OR. “I carried all of them into surgery,” Chatterton said.

“At Humber River I facilitate family-centred care and I reduce separation anxiety. In Kenya I was doing something similar but I was also the one taking the children away from their parents and into the OR. Professionally it was more difficult but it was a great experience for me.”

But along with an enhanced role came more responsibility and many challenges.

“Personally, I was challenged to get accustomed to working with a new team, many of whom had never worked with a Child Life Specialist before,” Chatterton said.”I had to advocate not only for the children but also for myself and inform others of my role on the mission.”

“There were also two operating tables to a room.This meant that I was accompanying a child into the OR where another child was already undergoing surgery.I tried to shield the children from the ongoing surgeries and we did our best to put the children to sleep as quickly as possible in order to reduce the amount of anxiety and trauma caused by that period of time in the OR.”Ê

“Overall, I felt good that I had solid operating room experience from Humber River,” it really helped.

And that’s not all. Before she left, Chatterton had tremendous support from the entire Humber River family. Many patients and staff members donated toys and learning materials for Chatterton to give to the children in Nakuru.

“They had never seen colouring books and crayons before. I had to show them what to do. It was amazing how well they could colour. They weren’t colouring outside the lines!”

“They are really, really happy people,” Chatterton added. “It was amazing to see a child so badly burned who could still function on a daily basis.”

As she boarded the bus once again for the “bumpy” three-hour ride back to Nairobi, Chatterton admits that she was sad to leave her many new friends and colleagues. Most of all, she knew she would miss the multitude of smiles she helped to make stronger.