For some children, their home away from home is Mission Health’s SECU Cancer Center. They receive world-class, evidence-based cancer treatments while there. But to them, they’re still in a hospital — a place where they get poked and prodded, and where they sometimes have to spend extended periods of time away from their friends, social networks and homes.
Mission’s Child Life program exists to change the typical hospital experience for pediatric patients. While other professionals — doctors, nurses, surgeons, anesthesiologists — have different, critical roles in caring for children with cancer, the Child Life program members have a different kind of specialty: creating joy, empowerment, fun, comfort and all kinds of other good things.
“These are kids who live with medical challenges far beyond what they should have to endure,” said Amy Fisher, a certified child life specialist with Mission Children’s Hospital’s Child Life program. “But they are still kids who want to play, be seen and enjoy each day — despite the chemo, needle pokes, scans and potential bad news.”
Birthdays Go On
In January 2018, 10-year-old Hunter Villalpando of Asheville spent his 9th birthday at the SECU Cancer Center. His stays there had become familiar territory to both him and his family. When Hunter was only 11 months old, he was there to be treated for testicular cancer, which was successfully cured. However, when he was 7 years old, he re-entered the center to be treated for leukemia.
“When he was in the hospital the first time, he was just a baby and didn’t know what was going on — but as an older child, he understood a lot more, so in a way it was harder for him,” said Nathan Villalpando, Hunter’s dad. “Child Life made his experience better.”
As an example, Villalpando shared Hunter’s 9th birthday experience. “He had to celebrate his birthday while undergoing treatment,” he said. “Child Life was great. They hung a large banner, sang happy birthday to him and gave him a big gift basket filled with toys and treats.”
According to Fisher, Hunter’s birthday experience exemplifies the way the Child Life department approaches care. “We strive to meet each family where they’re at during any point of a cancer diagnosis or treatment,” she said. “This could be a child newly diagnosed or one struggling with the fact that they have to show up to our clinic every day for chemo instead of being with their friends.”
There Every Day
Villalpando said that Child Life was even there to help Hunter through medical procedures like blood draws. “They were always there to explain things to him and find fun ways to distract him or help him get through whatever was going on,” he said.
“Child Life has a way of bringing normal to a completely abnormal situation,” said Fisher. “We may be making sparkly slime with a patient while they receive a blood transfusion or drawing a ‘cope-cake’ decorated with encouraging words.” Fisher said these coping techniques help patients deal with the inevitable ups and downs of cancer treatment.
Educating through Play
While Hunter was much more aware of his leukemia treatments than his testicular cancer treatments as a baby, he did still struggle to understand the types of things that were happening to him.
Villalpando pointed out that these things were hard enough for adults to comprehend, much less a child. Many families have this experience. That’s why another area Child Life helps them with is education.
“Child Life provides an array of services that are not always obvious,” said Fisher. “At first glance, we provide developmentally appropriate play and therapeutic activities for hospitalized and ill children. We are often seen as the ‘fun people’ who bring joy to patients and families. However, we also provide diagnostic teaching and procedural preparation to children in ways they can understand.”
“We take complex ideas, such as leukemia, and bring them to a child’s level — incorporating medical play, art materials and teaching dolls to help a child process what is happening to them,” Fisher continued. “Through building rapport and helping kids feel safe, they know they can come to the hospital or clinic and have an ally who will answer their questions and encourage them to be themselves, no matter what.”
“We work with the entire family because we understand a child’s cancer diagnosis affects everyone,” said Fisher. “We pay special attention to siblings who may be struggling to understand why mom or dad stays at the hospital with their sick brother or sister while they feel left behind. We also guide parents to explain cancer to their children in the most helpful ways. Parents shouldn’t have to know what to say when their child is diagnosed with cancer, but we are here to help guide them using evidence-based practices.”
Villalpando found these approaches helpful as a parent. “It’s hard having to balance everything when your child is sick,” he said. “But when you have not only the support of your friends and family, but also caring people at the hospital, it makes it a lot easier.”
Fisher said that, more than anything, Child Life serves as advocates for the children.
“Every little thing the hospital and Child Life did for Hunter was good for him,” said Villalpando. “Going to chemo and being hooked up to an IV hasn’t exactly been fun for him. As a parent, it’s nice knowing that there are people who are willing to devote their time to help children and make their hospital experiences better.”
Amy Fisher is a certified child life specialist with Mission Children’s Hospital’s Child Life program.
The goal of Mission Children’s Hospital’s Child Life program is to ease the stress and anxiety of medical experiences by providing activities that support the child’s and the family’s ability to cope with the hospital experience through play, developmentally appropriate education for procedures and/or diagnoses, and expressive activities. Our Child Life specialists work closely with caregivers and the medical team in order to provide a more comfortable hospital experience.