Visit Pediatric Oncology on any given day and you are bound to see Child Life at work.
Jennifer Ellis, Child Life Specialist
When asked several times how she deals with working with kids in the hospital, Jennifer always reply by saying, "each kid I work with is an inspiration to me. They teach me to live each day in the present, and despite a devastating diagnosis or illness, these kids are still kids and accordingly they still need to be given the opportunity to play. This is what keeps me coming back each day."
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It’s Bingo Time at Johns Hopkins
If you ever visit the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center at 2:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, don’t be surprised if the entire hospital seems to come to a halt. Doctors, nurses, patients—everyone who can stops what they’re doing and finds a closed-circuit TV to watch. It’s Bingo time.
Bingo is just one of the programs hosted at Johns Hopkins by Child Life, explains Jennifer Ellis, one of the specialists devoted exclusively to pediatric oncology. Kids love it so much, she says, they try to schedule their visits to the clinic for Wednesday afternoons, just so that they can play. Every patient gets a Bingo board, and every child has a chance to win. It’s Bingo—with a twist. Instead of letters and numbers, the board shows everyday items from the hospital: a wheelchair, stethoscope, a chart. The Child Life mission to turn play into learning, helping to familiarize children with the hospital environment, and normalizing their experience as much as possible.
Recently a project at the hospital demonstrated how wide the reach of Child Life is. Leora Friedman, a 19-year-old sophomore at Princeton University, came to Johns Hopkins with her guitar to sing to the children. Inspired by her father, pediatric oncologist Dr. Alan Friedman, Leora, along with her older sister Ariela, created“Music is Medicine” to lift children’s spirits through music, and give them the opportunity to create songs which are recorded just for them. The project culminated in a visit from artist Drew Seeley, who wrote and performed a song for one of the children. As Seeley said, “I hope our visit inspired some of these kids as much as they’ve inspired me!”
At Johns Hopkins, medical care is a team approach. It’s also family-centered. Pediatric oncology chilld life specialists act as connectors, communicating with various members of the team, making sure a family’s needs and wishes are respected every step of the way.
A child’s exposure to Child Life begins the day he or she enters the hospital. “Each family, each child, is different,” Jennifer says. “We work hard to find out where each family is, where they want to go, and how we can best get them there.” Newly-diagnosed children need help adjusting to the hospital environment. Later on, Child Life helps prepare children for the treatments they will need. Along the way, specialists help families celebrate milestones from birthdays and graduations to end-of-chemotherapy parties. And when children are ready to go home, the specialists are there to make sure the transition is as smooth as possible.
“School is vitally important to most children,” Jennifer says. “Sometimes our patients miss school for extended periods of time.” Jennifer act as liaisons between the families and school, arranging for tutoring as needed, so that children can keep up with their work. They provide children with “Beads of Courage,” necklaces that the children use to mark their journey as a cancer patient. “The beads,” Jennifer says, “are a visible, tangible diary, documenting each treatment the child has experienced. It’s a proud way for children to tell their story, and relay to their peers what they’ve been through.”
Letting Children be Children
Sometimes Child Life is just plain fun. “After all,” Jennifer says, “what do most children do with their time? They play. We want to make sure our kids have plenty of opportunities for that.” Child Life hosts a cooking show on the hospital closed-circuit TV, and provides ingredients so that the children can make their own Halloween treats and holiday cookies. Art Safari gives them the chance to make crafts. Books are an important means of educating children about their illness and giving them words to express what they feel. From time to time clowns from the Big Apple Circus—specially trained to entertain hospitalized children—come by. Child Life introduces children to Camp Sunrise, a summer program for children with cancer. And occasionally special guests like Ravens and Orioles players pay a visit.
Using Medical “Play”
But play also has a serious side. One of the most powerful tools Child Life specialists use is a simple cloth doll: a child’s “hospital buddy.” “The dolls,” Elizabeth explains, “help familiarize the children with hospital procedures, and create a safe environment for them to express how they feel.” Children decorate their dolls, giving them hair, wardrobes, even eyelashes. If a child needs a lumbar puncture, she can watch her “hospital buddy” get one first. “We use the dolls to come up with coping strategies for the children,” Jennifer says. “Does hospital buddy want to watch or look away when he has a shot gets examined? Does he want to sit on mom’s lap? Blow bubbles?” She and Elizabeth communicate to the staff how the children feel, and everyone is better prepared to make the experience as comfortable as possible.
When needed, Child Life specialists help families work on legacies and cope with bereavement. Most of all, they help families on each step of their journey from diagnosis to reintegrating with life after the hospital. “We create a family with our patients, their medical family,” Elizabeth says. Child Life is an essential part of the Johns Hopkins team, and with specialists like Elizabeth and Jennifer in place, families can be assured of excellence in every aspect of their child’s care.
Becoming a Child Life Specialist
Our child life specialists are highly skilled professionals trained and educated in child and adolescent development, education or psychology. A key component of their job is to communicate to the children.
Child Life specialists undergo extensive internships and training to learn their profession. “Most people,” Jennifer explains, “become Child Life specialists because they are exposed to the hospital in some way when they were children.” Jennifer grew up with asthma. But her most profound role model, she says, was her mother, who advocated for her whenever she was ill, and helped make her hospital experiences positive.