Front Line Heroines
The playful, rewarding career of a child life specialist
Susan Shumpert (right), a child life specialist at Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital, uses a medical play doll to explain a portacath device to one of her young patients.
Photography by Jeff Amberg
As it turns out, there actually are jobs that pay you to play, and Susan Shumpert, a child life specialist at Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital, has one of those best-kept-secret careers.
She’s one of the frontline heroines, working with families of sick children the moment they come through the hospital’s doors. Whether educating a child before a procedure or helping to deliver sad news to a sibling, healthcare professionals have come to depend on child life specialists at all stages of care.
“Hospitals are scary places for children,” Susan says. “My job is to explain why they’re here and what’s about to happen in ways they can understand. And what better way to do so than through their language of play?”
Two-year-old Olivia is visibly disappointed that her play partner, Miss Susan, is busy with another patient. “Play, Miss Susan, play,” she chants while sitting in her little red wagon receiving platelets through an IV.
Olivia looks forward to her two to three play dates per month with Miss Susan when she visits the hospital to receive platelets. Olivia was diagnosed in 2010 with TAR Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder characterized by the absence of the radius bone in the forearm that affects one in 600,000 children. As a child life specialist, Susan’s helps take the scariness out of Olivia’s long-term treatment.
Child life specialists are trained to help children and their families overcome difficult life situations primarily as they relate to illness or hospitalizations. They not only work with sick children but also with entire families, including siblings who need help dealing with a family member’s illness.
Susan explains that a child’s job is to play. “Through this modality, we’re able to present information about upcoming events or help a child rehearse coping strategies for medical procedures such as spinal taps or bone marrow aspirates,” she says.
“This is a giant camera that will take a picture of you,” she explains to one child who is preparing for a CT scan. “Once we lay you on this small bed, we’ll ride you through a doughnut hole, and then it will be over.” Susan skillfully diverts the child’s attention through the use of bubbles and a hot pink spinning Minnie Mouse.
Susan and other child life specialists use play and developmental interventions to help children like Olivia understand specific procedures they’re about to experience.
“We use the medical play doll with younger children to explain what portacath devices are and how they’re inserted under the skin.” Susan eases anxiety for children receiving first time IVs by introducing the medical play doll, who has an IV herself. “Children play with the water-filled syringes so that the needle-like plunger becomes a less feared object,” she explains.
It’s no surprise that children light up when Miss Susan walks by. She’s developed lasting bonds with these children over many juice boxes and Play-Doh pies.
Angelica, a spunky 3-year-old, toddles through the room, her IV machine trailing behind. She’s just finished painting with Miss Susan while she received platelets.
Angelica was diagnosed this past year with acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow, and now visits the hospital often to receive chemotherapy and platelets. Her 5-year-old brother, Jacarri, plays with a container full of cars as he waits for his sister’s lines to be flushed.
Child life specialists, many of whom have degrees in early childhood development, are professionally trained to work with young patients. Christy Fink, child life specialist and supervisor, says, “There’s nothing more satisfying than having a positive impact on the life of a child.”
Angelica’s grandmother says, “They’re like family here.” So much so that the staff recently threw Angelica a birthday party at the hospital.
Susan says Angelica and her family spend a significant amount of time here at the hospital. “My job is to make her long-term treatment comfortable and less intimidating.”
In various departments within the children’s hospital, Susan’s 10 child life specialist colleagues provide similar music and play therapy for their patients but in different settings. Christen Griner, a child life specialist in the sedation unit, says her job differs from Susan’s significantly. “Since our patients are admitted for sedation procedures which are fairly short, we must make connections and explain procedures quickly but in ways that calm the children.”
Christen typically sees several patients each morning who are being sedated for gastrointestinal procedures. These children might be receiving colonoscopies or procedures that examine internal organs through the use of endoscopes. In the afternoons she works with children who are admitted for radiology services or who need sedation for MRIs or CT scans, as well as with cancer patients needing lumbar punctures to receive intrathecal chemotherapy.
On another wing of the children’s hospital, Monica, an adolescent girl, is absorbed in learning the newest dance moves on the Nintendo Wii, so much so that she is not anxious over her visit. She frequents the children’s center often for asthma treatment.
“These age appropriate play areas are stocked with fun activities that help children cope with the stress of being in the hospital,” explains Sally Wilkes, child life specialist for the in-patient unit for school age children. “It’s a whole different game working with school age children. It’s important to allow older children their own space and facilitate autonomy during their treatment. Sometimes I just act like a big goofball so they’ll laugh and relax a little.”
Sally says the ability to wear many hats during a short period of time is a requirement in this profession. From restarting a video or playing a board game to preparing a child to see a dying sibling, child life specialists must be able to emotionally switch gears in a short period of time.
The teen lounge, a lively area where older children can hang out, watch movies, or play video games, is a “no-procedure zone” where child life specialists can spend time with patients.
“Families and support systems play such an important role in how children perceive and adjust to the hospital experience,” says Sally. “We really advocate for family involvement during treatment.”
Child life specialists, many of whom have degrees in early childhood development, are professionally trained to work with young patients. Christy Fink, child life specialist and supervisor, says that you definitely won’t get rich by choosing this career path, but it’s incredibly rewarding. “There’s nothing more satisfying than having a positive impact on the life of a child,” she says. “And this career allows me to do just that.”
Alicia Davis, another child life specialist at Palmetto Health, spends most of her time with babies, toddlers and preschool age children. She says, “The older infants and toddlers can be the most challenging, which is why I also focus so much on family-centered care. There is so much fear and anxiety for parents of sick children; they are usually exhausted and overwhelmed by the time their children are admitted. Understanding that anxiety and helping to alleviate it somewhat is my overall goal each day. The transformation of a parent’s face who has been struggling with an inconsolable toddler when we find the just right thing to calm and comfort a child is so heartwarming to see.”
The first academic child life specialist program in the Midlands started at Columbia College. Students are required to complete coursework on campus and participate in two internships in clinical settings at Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital.
Sally Wilkes and Carly Perry are co-chairs for the Palmetto Health Child Life Specialist internship program. Students follow the same schedule as a child life specialist for 15 weeks. Participants who maintain a required GPA and successfully complete internship and coursework may take the child life specialist professional certification exam after completing 480 patient contact hours.
Many say the child life specialist career is one of the medical profession’s best-kept secrets. With a generous helping of communication skills, followed by equal portions of love for children and the ability to multi-task in high stress situations, the child life specialist has the ingredients for one of the most challenging, yet rewarding, jobs available.