In the Pediatric Emergency Room of Elmhurst Hospital Center, amidst the swirl of doctors peering at X-rays and nurses studying charts, a woman distracts a 4-year-old boy with “Angry Birds” on an iPad while he gets 13 stitches for a gaping wound.
Meredith Farrell is poised and focused on the child’s demeanor. In her mid-30s, she has no medical degree or training, but she’s part of a growing field of medical professionals who specialize in alleviating children’s fears and anxieties in hospital settings.
Farrell is a Child Life specialist. Her field has more than doubled in size since the 1960s. Yet, although Child Life has earned recognition and respect within the medical industry, it is held back by limited funding, and children who are scared at the hospital don’t always get all the help they need.
The memory of her own traumatic medical experience fuels Farrell’s daily work with young patients and families. When she was 13, she was diagnosed with a tumor behind her left eye. On her 14th birthday, she came into the hospital for surgery.
“I had the worst hospital experience ever,” she said. “No one explained anything to me. Everyone kind of thought that if they didn’t use the word ‘cancer,’ I wouldn’t think of it on my own. But pre-Internet, I had an Encyclopedia Britannica ... I went into a big room that said ‘Oncology’ across the top. I looked up the word when I got home.”
Farrell’s tumor wasn’t cancerous, but her traumatic experience motivated her to make a change. “I said to myself, I have to be able to do something to make it better for kids.”
Wendy Lane, Child Life Coordinator at Galisano Children’s Hospital in Rochester, NY, noted in an email, “It can be a challenge for our Child Life program to deliver the quality of care that we feel is so desperately needed for the children and families cared for … Our services are stretched, our resources are stretched.”
Farrell and Vanisha Shah, the two Child Life specialists at Elmhurst Hospital Center, rely heavily on nonprofits and the general public for funds to do their job. Farrell, who has worked at Elmhurst for almost 11 years, said when describing her daily work, “Sometimes it’s overwhelming,” and explained that staff from other departments will often step in to assist her and Shah. “I’m lucky that there are other people who pitch in to help out,” she said.
The current financial support for Child Life, especially in Elmhurst, is not left under-appreciated.
“I always think that we could be doing more and always want to do more … I have various ideas and projects that we have written grants for …,” wrote Farrell in an email.
The Starlight Children’s Foundation, a national nonprofit, has been one of the largest sources of funding for the Child Life program at Elmhurst Hospital Center. Recently they provided multiple “fun centers,” mobile Wiis on wheels, preloaded with 30 games and a DVD player. Farrell and Shaw also make use of two iPads that have proven useful as distraction tools during blood draws and more serious procedures. While Farrell appreciates the power of “Angry Birds,” she wishes for more “medical kid apps” to better educate. Ultimately though, Farrell said the most useful technique for doing her job is listening.
“There’s not a gadget in the world that can do as much as letting a child and a family member know that you’re actually listening to what they’re saying,” she said.
There are now more than 400 Child Life programs in the United States and Canada, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. But while Child Life has grown and gained recognition over the last 40 years, it is a profession whose value in hospitals is still difficult to measure in quantifiable terms. After all, a veteran brain surgeon is going to perform the same quality operation on an infant regardless of the actions of a Child Life specialist.
The American Academy of Pediatrics explains that Child Life may reduce the length of a patient’s stay at the hospital as well as limit the need for painkillers, reducing overall costs. More research is needed to see if that argument can be applied across various settings.
While empirical data may not be generous in backing up the value of Child Life specialists, patients and families believe that they provide a service needed by all human beings. Farrell recounted a time working with a blind and mute 7-year-old boy who was traumatized by the sounds of the hospital.
The boy’s mother said that what calmed him most was music by Shania Twain. Upon hearing this, Farrell coordinated with a visiting musician to download guitar chords from the Internet and together they sang ‘You’re Still the One’ for the boy. What resulted was a smile on his face, significant most of all to the boy’s mother.
“In any situation … it’s always helpful to have that other person there to help you through it,” said Farrell. “It’s across cultures, across ages … we should be everywhere.”