By Meredith Flory
Mandy Lee is a Child Life Specialist at the Children’s Hospital of Georgia, a job you may not have heard of but one that is vitally important to our community, particularly for families whose child is admitted to the hospital. Dealing with an illness or injury can be scary and life changing for anyone but for a child those feelings may be amplified. Lee shared that child life specialists work in a variety of ways, “with the entire family” to help prepare and support childhood hospital stays. She explains that Child Life Specialists have bachelor’s degrees in child development, have completed internships and have become certified, using their knowledge to, “help kids cope with the hospital experience” and to normalize the experience of being in the hospital. Some of their responsibilities include maintaining playrooms that, “give patients the opportunity to play and socialize with other patients when appropriate,” arranging special events for holidays and birthdays, preparing children for, “what they will experience while in the hospital using dolls, books and sometimes actual medical equipment and child friendly terminology,” preparing siblings for visits to the ICU, as well as providing bereavement support when a child passes away.
Lee professes she instantly knew this is what she was meant to do when she found out about the child life specialist career, as it was a way for her to work in the medical setting and with children. While she says her favorite part of the job is “any time I get to see a child master their hospital experience,” she went on to explain that this looks differently for different patients. It might be, “using play to teach a child that the hospital isn’t always scary” or getting to, “go into a procedure with a chronic patient” and watching them use the techniques for coping and calming that she’s taught them, or it might even be a thank you after, “supporting a family through their hardest day.”
Lee reminds us that the biggest thing to remember about kids with chronic or long-term illnesses is that “they are a child first and their diagnosis should not define them.” While play and other activities may need to be adapted to their specific needs, there’s still plenty of room for fun. Lee and other child life specialists may also work with members of the community such hosting special events, pet therapy, concerts or when helping a family prepare for a child’s return to school.
One of those staples of childhood fun is summer camp and as part of her work, Lee is a camp director for Camp Heart Strong. Camp Heart Strong helps CHOG kids ages five to 17 who have a cardiac-related diagnosis make those lasting summer memories. Just like any summer camp, children experience activities like rope courses, climbing walls, swimming and archery, but with, “a team of physicians and nurses present to take care of their medical needs.” Camps like Camp Heart Strong allow children to make friendships and create bonds with other children going through similar medical experiences and when they may feel different from their peers at school. For example, she shares that many of the campers have scars from surgeries that make them self-conscious but at camp, “most kids have scars, everyone has a similar diagnosis and they no longer feel different. I had one camper tell me that he used to be sad because he felt different from all of his friends but then he got to camp and met so many other kids who were just like him and that made him happy. At camp, they are no longer as self-conscious about their scars. They begin comparing them to see whose is biggest! The one thing that generally sets them apart from their peers becomes the thing that unites them at camp.”
Lee adds that camp also allows parent caregivers the chance for a relaxing break, while knowing their child is having fun and being cared for and also gives patients and medical professionals a chance to, “connect on a deeper level” in a more casual setting outside of the hospital. This is perhaps a microcosm of what child life specialist are doing everyday – creating a positive community in the hospital through opportunities to improve emotional health and relationships during difficult times for families.
This article appears in the April 2019 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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