Taking fear out of kid’s treatment
At Inova Loudoun, that’s where Samantha Leahy comes in. She created the Child Life program at Inova Loudoun four and a half years ago after working at Inova Fairfax.
Child Life specialists aren’t doctors or nurses. Instead, they’re trained in psychology and child development.
Along with fellow Child Life Specialist Jessica Comfort, Leahy is an advocate for children, but her main function is to make sure kids understand what’s going on at each stage of the process, educate them about it and “do everything we can to keep them from getting scared.”
March is Child Life Professionals month.
The profession evolved from the “play ladies” brought in to entertain children and ensure continued child development during long hospital stays.
Prior to that, many hospitals discouraged parents from visiting because it upset the children when they left, according to Leahy.
Today, Leahy works to educate kids in age appropriate language about what’s going to happen. “You don’t use the word ‘needle’ to a small child. For older kids, you want to use more real terminology.”
In both cases, Leahy and Comfort are armed with a specially prepared laptop with models and photos of commonly-used medical technology so kids understand what’s coming next.
Often, a child will have a chance to see and touch the medical equipment before they have to interact with it.
“If you tell a child they’re going to get a CAT scan, they’re going to go looking around for the cats,” Leahy says.
Leahy also entertains with toys, books and an iPad full of games. Even so, her job isn’t all fun and games.
There in hard times
Not everything is as fun or benign as distracting a child when they get a shot.
When asked about a time when she remembered as her biggest contribution, she recalled being with a teenager after she passed out in school. Leahy was also there when the patient’s hematologist told the girl she had cancer.
Overcome with emotion, the girl’s father panicked and told everyone that he had to get out, leaving his young daughter alone with a terrifying diagnosis.
And that’s where Leahy’s experience comes in. She explained to her patient exactly what the situation was and what the next steps were. And she did it again when the girl’s father returned, educating and empowering them both.
But that’s not the biggest hurdle for a child life specialist.
“The biggest challenge is when there’s a death or a CPR in progress,” says Leahy, who says her priority is ensuring parents and siblings have adequate time to say goodbye.
She also works with the children and younger siblings of patients in the adult ICU, sometimes preparing them to say their final goodbyes.
Reaching out to different ages
With a master’s degree in applied developmental psychology, Leahy knows the approach and level of understanding differs per child. Even so, there are some general guidelines by age.
With children under 4, there is an understandable fear of strangers, so child services generally works through a parent. From 4-8, she works in tandem with the parent.
Younger kids need to be told what’s going on moment-to-moment with older children wanting to understand up to 30 minutes earlier so they have time to process. Teens like to research on their own given the tools.
Having someone to focus on the children’s emotions and education is important to medical staff.
Nurse practitioner Lennis Klenk of the Pediatric ER explains, “Things happen very quickly when someone comes here. There’s been an injury or an illness that’s abrupt. Child life is just our voice of reason that calms everyone down. They help us do whatever we need to do to get the kids better. They also make the parents feel better.”
Talking to kids
When preparing to bring your own children to the emergency room Leahy and Klenk both agree.
Be honest with them.
“Most little kids, if they’re scared, they’re worried ‘am I going to get a shot,’” says Leahy. And while it may be tempting to say that there won’t be any shots, chances are if they’re in the Pediatric ER, there’s good chance there will be a “poke-y” at some point.
According to Leahy, the best thing to tell a child is “As soon as I know, I promise I’ll tell you. It’s the most honest thing you can say.”
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