‘Medical play' helps young patients heal

Child life specialists ease stress for kids, worried parents

  • Photo

IOWA CITY — Caring for the youngest patients at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics requires the typical medical equipment, but it often also calls for bubbles, dolls and computer games.

Those are some of the tools of Ben Miller’s job as a child life specialist at the UI Children’s Hospital. Miller is one of the 11 child life specialists at the hospital.

Explaining a complex medical issue to a toddler through “medical play,” comforting a child or distracting them with activities during a procedure and easing stress for other family members are part of a typical day for a child life specialist.

“To help alleviate some of that anxiety, make it more familiar or normal to them, distract them or help them cope during a procedure” are the goals, Miller said. “The most rewarding part is when you hear a parent or a doctor or a nurse say, ‘That procedure went so much better than I could have imagined,’ or ‘I never thought my child could cope so well.’?”

Vital part of care

Child life specialists are acknowledged by the American Academy of Pediatrics as being a vital part of care to children, to meet their emotional, psychological and social needs, said Gwen Senio, manager of child life programs at UI Children’s Hospital.

“We really recognize that kids have unique needs that need to be addressed during health care experiences,” she said. “Because so much of hospitalization can be a big unknown, this is helping to take that away, to help them understand the experiences.”

Preparing children to cope with procedures and therefore having more relaxed patients can result in procedures taking less time, enabling staff to be more productive, and the need for less sedation, Senio said.

Last year, the Children’s Hospital cared for more than 6,200 hospitalized children, performed 4,931 surgeries and provided 208,959 outpatient visits, and bed capacity will grow 19 percent with the opening of the new UI Children’s Hospital in 2016.

It’s anticipated more child life specialists will be added to meet those increased patient needs, Senio said.

Lloyd and Heather Elmore said they appreciate the skills Miller brought in dealing with their son Nolan, a 3-year-old who was a recent patient at the hospital. Nolan was admitted in mid-March with osteomyelitis, an infection in his femur. He had surgery to remove the infection, and some of his femur was cut away.

During Nolan’s several-day hospital stay, Miller spent time in medical play with the boy and distracted him with bubble-blowing and iPad games in procedure rooms.

“It keeps his mind off of what’s going on,” Lloyd Elmore, of North Liberty, said.

Simple explanations

The child life specialists also know the age-appropriate way to talk about medical issues with children so parents don’t have to struggle with that, Heather Elmore said. It also frees up parents’ attention when they need to sign consent forms and talk with doctors, she said.

“It’s really invaluable,” she said.

During a session of medical play with Nolan, Miller used a cloth doll to show him how an IV tube is inserted into an arm. He made sure to show Nolan that the needle comes out once the tube is in. It’s a common misconception among children, who often think the needle stays in their arm and that it will poke them from the inside if they move around with the IV, Miller said.

Nolan helped put numbing cream on the doll arm and assisted in bandaging it up after the IV tube was in. Miller explained what was happening all the while, and compared it to Nolan’s IV tube.

“Do you think he’s a little scared when there’s a needle around? What can we do to help him feel better?” Miller asked Nolan.

For older kids and teens, slideshows and videos on the iPad walk them through medical procedures so they have a chance to ask questions.

The specialists are armed with tote bags filled with toys, bubbles and books. Some of the toys serve double duty, Miller said. Blowing bubbles is fun but also can help a child relax, because it promotes deep-breathing, and a large reading book can fill the time but also serve as a visual block for something happening in the procedure room.

Child life specialists typically have backgrounds in psychology or therapeutic recreation, and the UI now offers a child life degree.

The job combines a lot of aspects of teaching and working with children with the medical profession, said Kristen Rooney, 24, a child life specialist at the UI hospital.

“We’re trying to really help the kids deal with stressful situations the best way that they can, and the families and siblings as well, just kind of be the support system for them,” she said.

Like what you're reading?

We make it easy to stay connected:

to our email newsletters
Download our free apps

Give us feedback

Have you found an error or omission in our reporting? Tell us here.
Do you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.