Child Life Specialists: A Vital Resource For Children And Their Families

by Hillary Gannon, CCLS

June 30, 2003

For a small child, or even a teenager, the prospect of being hospitalized with an illness, having surgery, or seeing a loved one in intensive care can be an intimidating and unnerving experience. To help in these emotionally trying circumstances, many families have come to rely on Child Life Specialists, trained professionals who combine a sensitive, caring touch with an in-depth knowledge of hospital and medical procedures. Providing support and compassion through this difficult time, Child Life Specialists serve as an important liaison and work closely with children, and their parents, to reduce the anxiety associated with hospital stays and visits.

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For a small child, or even a teenager, the prospect of being hospitalized with
an illness, having surgery, or seeing a loved one in intensive care can be an
intimidating and unnerving experience. To help in these emotionally trying circumstances,
many families have come to rely on Child Life Specialists, trained professionals
who combine a sensitive, caring touch with an in-depth knowledge of hospital
and medical procedures. Providing support and compassion through this difficult
time, Child Life Specialists serve as an important liaison and work closely
with children, and their parents, to reduce the anxiety associated with hospital
stays and visits.

Hillary Gannon, the Child Life Specialist at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington,
Massachusetts, works with children to help them understand what they can expect,
and make sure they feel as comfortable as possible in the complex environment
of the hospital. While the Lahey Clinic treats many children, it does not have
a dedicated inpatient pediatric facility, making Ms. Gannon’s role especially
important. Through her work, Ms. Gannon has discovered that pictures, specifically
instant photos, are an indispensable tool for communicating effectively with
her patients, and their families. In her experience, Ms. Gannon has found that
only Polaroid instant pictures provide the on-the-spot and accurate visual representations
of the medical setting needed to support this therapeutic process. Pictures
have proven to be a powerful tool for communicating with a child on a level
that goes beyond words, allowing Child Life Specialists to develop a greater
level of trust and support.

Helping Prepare For Surgery

One of the important functions of the Child Life Specialist is to serve as
a liaison between family members and the hospital, prior to surgery. Ms. Gannon
works closely with children who are scheduled to have a procedure done in the
hospital. “I explain to kids and their parents what’s going to happen on the
day of the surgery, where they’re going to go and who they’re going to meet.
I also am there on the day of the surgery to provide suggestions for coping
and relaxation. Part of my job is to offer some forms of distraction for both
the child and the parents during this extremely stressful time,” explained Gannon.


Ms. Gannon also acts as an important link between parents and doctors, ensuring
that parents are allowed to stay with their child right up until the time they’re
anesthetized. Child Life Specialists serve as a vital resource for family members,
explaining various types of testing or diagnostic exams that will be performed.
By describing these procedures and answering questions in advance, both child
and parent know what to expect and tend to be less stressed when the procedure
is done. In the case of adult patients, the Child Life Specialists help answer
questions about how and what to tell their children regarding an illness or
upcoming procedure.

The Scrub Club

For a child, having surgery marks a significant occasion in their life, and
according to Ms. Gannon, instant photography is an effective way to provide
a “badge of courage” after recovery. “Here at Lahey, we’ve created a program
called the ‘Scrub Club.’ When a child comes to pre-op, I teach them all about
the operating room, and if a mom or dad is going to be in the operating room,
then I take a picture of all of them dressed in their surgical garb. This allows
me to create a bit of fun and distraction, just to take their minds off the
impending surgery. Immediately after the surgery, the child is presented with
a certificate and a framed instant photo of themselves. This way, we encourage
them to be proud of what they’ve gone through. And the pictures become visual
proof of their courage, which they can then share with friends,” adds Gannon.

Ms. Gannon started using a Polaroid instant camera and 600 film, but has recently
transitioned to the new Polaroid One, which is lighter and more portable. The
camera’s simplicity, high-quality images and instant results have made it the
only choice for her work at the Lahey Clinic job as a Child Life Specialist.
“Basically, I can’t wait for film to be developed when I’m trying to prepare
a child to see what a specific machine at the hospital looks like. I need a
camera that is extremely dependable and very fast. One that I can just pull
out and use right there. The Polaroid One is perfect for this job. I’ve considered
digital, but honestly I just don’t have time to go back to my office and print
out the pictures. I need the images right on the spot for them to be effective.”

Pictures Ease The Stress Over Visits to the I.C.U.

Another important role of the Child Life Specialist is to help prepare a child
who is about to visit a loved one in the intensive care unit (I.C.U.). It is
often necessary to educate these children about the various life saving apparatus
they’ll see surrounding their sick parent or relative. When a child is expected
at the I.C.U. for a visit, Ms. Gannon will typically go in just ahead of time
and take a number of Polaroid instant pictures of the different medical devices,
such as IVs, ventilators, monitors, etc. Then, she sits down with the child,
and using the instant images, explains what each machine is used for and what
it’s doing to help the patient. Ms. Gannon also takes this opportunity to explain
that family members will often look different after certain medical procedures.

By showing these pictures before actually entering the I.C.U., the Child Life
Specialist is able to prepare the child for what they’re about to see, helping
to reduce any potential shock from the encounter. This also provides the child
with a chance to decide whether or not they feel comfortable going into this
setting. Sometimes, just seeing the pictures is reassurance enough for the child
that their loved one is being well cared for, and an actual visit is unnecessary.

Child Life Specialists use instant photos in numerous ways to make patients
and families more comfortable. Pictures can be posted on bulletin boards to
make an I.C.U. room seem a bit homier. Photos of a very young child can be taken
with an ill family member, then taken home as a reassuring reminder that this
family member still loves them and is not gone permanently. Images also can
be useful in helping children work through their feelings over a loved one’s
illness and absence. Hospital visits often prove to be an intimidating experience
for children, which is why Child Life Specialists are so vital in creating a
better rapport between family and hospital staff, making the entire experience
easier for everyone concerned.

Bereavement Support

One of the more difficult tasks for Child Life Specialists is providing bereavement
support to children that have a loved one who has passed-away or is terminally
ill. Instant photography has proven to be instrumental tool in making a difficult
situation just a little easier. Ms. Gannon explains that whenever possible,
she works with ill patients to develop special activities, such as creating
handprints, journals and taking instant pictures to help find ways for a child
to say goodbye to that loved. “I had a 16 year old boy, who’s mother was dying,
and he asked if he could borrow the Polaroid camera to privately take some pictures
of his mom just after she’d been taken off the ventilator. He wanted these images
of her, without the machines hooked up, as a lasting memory. I’ve recently been
in touch with this young man, and he still looks at those pictures, which he
lovingly put into a scrapbook. He also says he’ll never forget those last precious
moments he was able to spend with his mom and the pictures that captured those
emotions from that day. For him, the photos have a therapeutic effect and really
helped him with the grieving process.”

Making A Real Difference

For Child Life Specialists, like Hillary Gannon, instant photography is an
invaluable tool in their work. The simple power of a picture can educate, reassure,
lift one’s spirits, connect emotionally or create lasting memories. Whether
it’s preparing a child for an upcoming surgery, showing an anxious young one
a family member in the I.C.U., providing a “badge of courage,” fostering discussion
about a diagnosis and/or a treatment, or assisting a child in dealing with issues
of bereavement, Polaroid photos play a crucial role in the work of these caring
professionals.

According to Ms. Gannon, “It’s really a great gift that I can help kids in
their most difficult times.” Child Life Specialists truly make a difference
for children and their families, who are dealing with illness. They are an essential
part of the healing process.

 

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