Child Life Specialists: Hospital Heroes During Child Life Month and Always
Ben was barely 4. He had gotten up early for a 45 minute drive to the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital oncology clinic on an empty stomach. We arrived just as the doors were opening, and once there, Ben got a physical exam, had his port accessed for fluids and a blood draw, and got into a wagon and went down to the sedation area for a lumbar puncture with chemotherapy inserted into his spinal fluid (intrathecal chemo).
It was a couple of hours later that we returned to the oncology clinic to find out that Ben’s blood counts were low and he needed blood transfusions before he could get his chemotherapy. During blood transfusions, children are monitored carefully, and the blood is given slowly. This time a single transfusion wasn’t enough, Ben needed both red cells and platelets. It was mid- afternoon by the time the second transfusion started, and by the time it was finished evening was approaching, and he still needed fluids and chemotherapy.
Children came and went, and after a while, we were the only people left in the clinic except for the Child Life Specialist, Jen. By the time 4:30 in the afternoon rolled around and Ben and I had spent over 8 hours at the clinic, I had distracted Ben in every way I knew how, had played with every toy there 7 times over, and was tired and hungry. I could hardly keep myself distracted, let alone keep helping Ben, but Jen, somehow still had gas in her tank even after her long work day, and she came along to save the day.
She conjured up a bag of Cheetos (I’m pretty sure she pulled it out of thin air), and let Ben rummage through her stash of poke prizes (one way to help kids cope with being poked is to let them choose a prize immediately after getting poked, so the prize is called a poke prize). The Cheetos didn’t last long, and neither did the distraction, but Jen always had something up her sleeve.
This woman achieved sainthood that afternoon, because Cheeto fingers and all, Ben started feeling Jen’s hair. Ben loves hair, and Jen’s was short and baby-fine. When Ben started feeling Jen’s hair, she ran with it. She let him play stylist for what seemed like forever, it was one thing he didn’t get bored with. She was completely unfazed by his grubby preschooler Cheeto hands, and acted like he was doing her a favor by playing with her hair.
Jen came alongside us in dozens of ways over the years of Ben’s cancer treatment.
One day, when we got stuck in a car line to the parking lot, Ben vomited in the car. I’m terribly stoic, but everyone has their moment, and that day was the one in which all the stress of childhood cancer crashed down on my head at once. I called up to the clinic once we finally got parked and told them what happened. Jen met us at the door with clean clothes, a fresh blanket, and a big hug. She swooped in and took Ben from me, and cleaned him up and got him changed, so I could pick up the shattered pieces of my emotions and make an attempt to pull myself together. Jen acted like it was no big deal. Maybe to her it was all in a day’s work, but to me she was a superhero.
Jen is one of thousands of Child Life Specialists who work in hospitals and other clinical settings to help give kids and parents what they need to get through difficult health care situations.
March is Child Life Month, and from the bottom of my heart, I want to send my appreciation not only to Jen, but to all of the Child Life Specialists who help children deal with medical treatments and procedures, whether it’s their first time in the emergency room, or fortieth time undergoing a procedure. Child Life Specialists are the quiet heroes of hospitals.
Read more articles about children and medical procedures: