Spotlight on Child Life's Newest Services
Mommy’s at the HospitalWhen Kim Brezniak arrived at CPMC late-January, she was pregnant with mono-chorionic and mono-amniotic twins, a high-risk pregnancy in which twins share a placenta and amniotic sac.
At 28 weeks, she was admitted for round-the-clock fetal monitoring. Before delivering two healthy girls late-February, she was tested every hour, which meant she could not leave the hospital for a month. Much of the time she was tethered to her bed.
As challenging as that experience was, the most stressful part of her stay was dealing with her 3-year-old boy Grayson, who couldn’t understand why his mother couldn’t be at home with him.
"My husband Steve brought Grayson to the hospital every day, but it was stressful– he was in a strange place, he’d freak out when he saw my test leads, and then play with equipment he shouldn’t touch," Kim recalls. "I felt like the second he got there, I wanted him to leave and then I’d feel guilty. He would cry; I would cry. He would ignore me, and then I would cry because of that."
Child Life to the Rescue
The nurses recommended that Kim consult with Child Life services, which helps families deal with challenging health issues and hospital stays through support, education, guidance, and activities. Although CPMC already had a vibrant Child Life services department, the NICU, antepartum, and labor and delivery departments had just gotten their own team.
Child Life specialist Elyse Cann first brought new toys for Grayson that she specially picked for him, including dolls with test leads attached that showed him what mommy was going through. She also helped Kim and Steve establish a routine at the hospital to give Grayson a sense of security. Kim and Grayson weren’t able to Skype, so Cann suggested that they record iPhone videos every morning so they could stay connected throughout the day.
Cann also reassured Kim that her guilt and Grayson’s behavior were both normal and expected. "It took an enormous load off me," says Kim. "I saw a change in my son’s behavior, and it changed my experience, too. Child Life Services was probably the most pivotal part for making my stay doable."
Bonding with a New Baby
In addition to helping antepartum mothers, NICU Child Life specialists support parents during their newborn’s hospital stay by helping them bond with their baby. They also help siblings understand why their new brother or sister is in an incubator by doing medical play with preemie-size dolls and showing them equipment like G-tubes and monitors.
"Having a premature sibling can be overwhelming and confusing for big brothers and sisters. When they understand what’s going on, they get excited about spending time with their baby sibling."
Support for Sick Kids
Theresa Lam’s son Justin also benefitted from support from Child Life services, but not because he was a sibling, rather because he was a patient.
In 2009, Justin was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at the age of e. "We were in the hospital for days or weeks at a time, and we were both scared," says Theresa. "The Child Life specialists at the Pediatric Specialty Care Center helped calm Justin, which in turn helped me. They entertained him, provided him with games, toys, and videos, and did everything they could to ease the tension and make things better."
Empowering Young Patients
They also helped Justin prepare for tests and procedures. For instance, they gave him a doll with a catheter so that he could learn what to expect during chemotherapy, and then they sat with him during all his procedures. In addition, the specialists taught Theresa how to talk to Justin about his illness.
"We make sure that children understand their diagnosis, so that they feel empowered to participate in their own health care," says specialist Deirdre Goe.
A Home in the Hospital
This support crosses a wide spectrum of departments in the Pediatric Specialty Care Center, from cardiology to endocrinology.
"We want to make sure that a child’s hospital stay is not a traumatizing, emotional experience that creates a negative lifelong impact. Even though he’s going through a challenging time, he can grow and learn about himself and create a stronger bond with his family."
The mission seems to have worked for Justin. He’s now an outpatient, but he always looks forward to returning to CPMC. "He feels like he’s at home there," insists Theresa. "I am so grateful that the Child Life services program exists. Everyone there is caring and patient. They’re always there when you need them. I can’t imagine what our experience would have been like without them."