Child Life in a pandemic

June 30, 2020

Throughout the hallways of this hospital, the most resilient of children are fighting battles one can only begin to imagine. They are my heroes, their strength unparalleled. As a Certified Child Life Specialist in the Emergency Center (EC), I often get to meet patients and families at their most vulnerable. The EC is the gateway to the rest of the hospital, where initial assessments are made, diagnoses come into light and treatment begins. I love my job. I love meeting families here amidst the organized chaos and playing a role in their first introduction to Texas Children’s. Recently, however, the tables have turned. New introductions have been made. Emergency medicine, meet COVID-19. 

As a Child Life Specialist, I’ve quickly learned that COVID-19 has more than just medical side effects. A hospitalized child within this pandemic is not just experiencing stressors related to hospitalization. Our tiny heroes and their caregivers are now walking through our doors with a whole new set of external stressors, already altered from their baseline. Children miss their communities of classmates and playdates. Parents find themselves on a seesaw, balancing their work as professionals and as nurturers. The disappointment of a favorite park being closed, a postponed celebration or a canceled trip to see grandparents is felt by all. It takes extra, special intentionality to address kiddos’ fears and foster resilience. And of no fault of their own, families find themselves here in the hospital on top of everything. 

Medical journeys are beginning and continuing with an extra layer of vulnerability due to this disruption in routine, loss of control, and even more uncertainty of what is to come. Symptoms or not, children are reeling from a world infected with COVID-19. Now, more than ever, children need psychosocial support. And as our community here works to do our part to flatten the curve, child life is striving to adapt creatively while still keeping patient- and family-centered care at the center of our minds.  

In circumstances that can feel so limiting, there is a hidden invitation both inside and outside of the hospital to learn and re-create the mold to be even better. In adherence to social distancing protocols and PPE guidelines, we here at Texas Children’s are finding creative ways to meet the holistic needs of the hospitalized child alongside our health care teammates. No matter a patient’s level of visible anxiety, we are cognizant that there is more going on than just hospitalization/diagnoses and we continue to validate that. We are reframing a child’s perspective of PPE, placing stickers of beloved characters on face shields and forming connections by asking patients if they think we look like astronauts or scuba divers or a personality of their own imagination. My personal favorite: a child I was playing with told me I looked like “Forky,” the very personality on our coloring page. We are engaging family members in supportive conversation, recognizing that due to visitation protocols, they may not have their spouse’s hand to squeeze and may benefit from that extra check in. Allowing opportunities for control/mastery over a child’s day is even more crucial than ever before, and so my passion for procedural preparation and the dissemination of honest information has intensified. Validating emotions, re-shaping perspectives, being a supportive presence, creating chances for control and facilitating play have been so important during these unprecedented times and will continue to be as such in the days to come.  

As our society navigates this current reality, I’ve been so encouraged by my coworkers and their drive to allow kids to be kids. In the coming weeks, you too will meet a few of them and hear their stories. I hope you feel as inspired as I do by their innovation to encourage positive coping and advocate for play and normalcy in a world that feels anything but normal. My smile might not be fully visible under these masks and shields, but I have such joy to be a member of these frontlines. Here’s to continuing to partner alongside patients through the ups and downs and here’s to continued learning in pursuit of family-centered care.  

Post by:

Chandler Townsend