child life specialist with children

Child life specialists lower hospital anxiety

A hospital experience can overwhelm a child who is already sick or hurt. Strange machines make odd noises, unfamiliar tubes smell funny and people with needles want to poke you. A certified child life specialist can ease this anxiety. This health care professional works with your child and you to create individual care that fits your child’s age, preferences and personality.

“There’s no cookie-cutter way to do this,” said Regina Burdett, a certified child life specialist at UTMB Health Clear Lake Hospital. Burdett introduces herself to children who are at the hospital to have surgery or other medical treatment. She carries a one-of-a-kind book with her to show curious young patients what the Clear Lake operating room looks like, how the parts of an IV go together and which toys exactly are in the playroom.

The playroom—featured in the above video about pediatric services available at Clear Lake—is important. Child life specialists promote healing through play. In the Clear Lake hospital playroom, children can play with Lincoln Logs, Legos, dinosaurs, trucks, toy soldiers, princess castles or X-Box games.

“Play is their development,” Burdett said. Playing games is a fun way to learn coping techniques that involve all five senses. Burdett has a recording of what an MRI sounds like. She tells children they can choose a mask that smells like cotton candy. She prepares them to feel something cold or soft.

“It’s all sensory information,” she said.

A child life specialist can also help children who visit hospitalized relatives. “Sometimes, it’s to help prepare the child for a death,” Burdett said.

Other times Burdett focuses on parents who are having a hard time. She’ll take them out of the room for a short walk to talk. “It’s relaxed time away from the moment.”

Recently, Burdett met a 7-year-old girl who had strep throat and was dehydrated. The child needed an IV, but she was kicking and screaming. “We’re going to take a pause,” Burdett told everyone in the room, from the girl to her parents to the other health care providers. “We’re going to take this step by step.” Her voice was calm, firm and friendly. She told the girl to breathe deeply and relax. Burdett placed a palm-sized device that vibrates near the site where the nurse was putting in an IV.  The deep breathing helped the girl relax her muscles and gave her a focusing task, Burdett said. The vibration caused her brain to have two sensory messages at the same time, distracting her from the pain-related messages going to her brain. It worked.

“You were right,” the girl told Burdett later. “It’s all in my head. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.”

To learn how a certified child life specialist can help you, contact Regina Burdett at UTMB Health Clear Lake Hospital at (832) 632-7721 or Lizette Perez at John Sealy Hospital in Galveston at (409) 772-3424.