Helping Kids Have Fun at the Hospital

Mary Bridge child life specialists help kids understand and feel less anxious about the hospital

One bad childhood trip to the hospital can set you up for a lifetime of trauma. So when 7-year-old Kyla, who has an intense fear of needles, needed her blood drawn at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital, its unique staff of child life specialists stepped in. They bonded with Kyla by playing with her, walking her through the procedure and even allowing her to “draw blood” from a medical play doll beforehand.

“Because of a child life specialist, Kyla trusts health care,” says Kyla’s mother, Kolene Beltran. Reducing nervousness over medical care for the hospital’s young patients is the child life team’s specialty. What started as a one-woman job 35 years ago is a team of 10 strong today, with approximately 150 volunteers assisting. “Children need more than medicine,” says Anna Ahrens, director of patient and family support services.

The nationally certified specialists, whose backgrounds include child development, family studies and psychology, help kids who are in the hospital for medical procedures to understand what’s happening. They do this by using a variety of anxiety-busting tools and strategies, such as play; using donated iPads to both prepare them for and distract them from procedures; or bringing in pet therapy volunteers, clowns and other visitors.

This year, Mary Bridge will partner with Central Washington University, which created an undergraduate program in child life services that started this fall, and a master’s program in child life services that kicks off in the spring of 2016.