Child life specialists provide invaluable help to families

Sanford Health hopes to expand the service through new fundraising campaign.

Hannah Miller with a bike helmet on her head
Hannah Miller with a bike helmet on her head

Phil and Donna Miller’s worst nightmare was confirmed in July 2013.

A bump on their daughter’s arm turned out to be more than just a battle scar from soccer practice. Their 9-year-old girl, Hannah, was diagnosed with an aggressive bone cancer in her right arm and needed to start treatment as soon as possible.

“She’s our one and only daughter, and to hear she had a disease like cancer was tough to take,” Phil Miller said. “You want the best for your children. We knew we were going to have a pretty tough road to fight, but we were going to beat it.”

Hannah was able to receive much of her medical care close to home at Sanford Children’s Hospital in Bismarck, North Dakota, but her family also traveled across the state to Fargo for advanced cancer care.

As part of her treatment, two cancerous bones from Hannah’s forearm were removed and replaced with a bone from her leg. For the following months, her arm and leg healed in casts.

Hannah, who loves playing soccer and being active, couldn’t do the things she wanted to do. The Sanford Children’s child life specialists in Fargo made that time bearable for Hannah.

What is child life?

The Association of Child Life Professionals is one of the best well-kept secrets in the health care field. Child development professionals known as child life specialists work behind the scenes and in tandem with doctors and nurses to ensure each child has the best experience possible.

With well-established programs at Sanford Health in Fargo and Sioux Falls, child life services have helped improve pediatric outcomes, the quality of care and the overall patient and family experience. Families never see a bill for child life services.

Child life specialists help children and their families cope with the emotional stress and uncertainty of illness by:

  • Engaging patients in therapeutic play to enhance self-healing.
  • Creating care plans based on assessments of each child’s development, coping style, past medical experiences and family needs.
  • Helping children understand a diagnosis and express their feelings.
  • Preparing patients for and providing support during procedures.
  • Supporting parents and siblings with family-centered care including grief and bereavement services.
  • Organizing special events and activities with community partners.

Why is play so important?

When a child life specialist walks into the room, an IV becomes the world’s tiniest straw and a syringe transforms into a paintbrush, worthy of squirting bright colors onto a canvas instead of causing hurt. They blow bubbles in exam rooms and tell imaginative stories during MRIs. They read books to help kids understand what’s wrong and play familiar games to make them feel at ease.

These are just a few of the many ways child life specialists make healing look like child’s play.

Age-appropriate play is an essential, natural part of childhood, important in its own right. It’s more vital than ever during a hospital stay. For our pediatric patients, play and other therapeutic activities can help them not only prepare for what comes next but get better faster.

Play truly helps children heal by:

  • Reducing pain and getting kids moving again.
  • Helping kids learn about and explore their world.
  • Providing a sense of safety and familiarity.
  • Promoting continued growth and development.
  • Helping explore feelings and learn about their diagnosis and treatment.

Helping Hannah

With child life by her side, Hannah learned to cope with her cancer diagnosis and keep herself busy during those long hospital stays.

“The child life services were an amazing benefit to Hannah,” Donna said. “They were able to help ease the stress, strain and anxiety that children can feel during difficult times.”

When Hannah wasn’t feeling well, child life helped distract her from the pain and discomfort of treatment.

“I have a lot of fun with child life,” Hannah said. “They bring art projects into my room and take me to play in the playroom.”

Throughout her treatment, Sanford Children’s Hospital in Bismarck was able to provide Hannah with certain care and therapies she needed, with the added comfort of knowing her friends and family were nearby.

The arts and crafts projects she worked on with child life in Fargo also gave her a way to make a difference for others.

During one stay at Sanford Children’s in Bismarck, Hannah walked around and counted how many other kids were in the hospital. Then she created a get-well card for each child. The process not only helped Hannah feel better, it brought joy to the other patients and their families.

“This is just one way Hannah is so special,” Phil Miller said. “We watched our little girl provide support and advice to kids who were earlier in the process than Hannah. She would give them tips on how to handle things better.”

Posted In Cancer, Children's, Foundation