'Entering Someone Else's Story.' What It Means to be a Child Life Specialist
Why these trained pros are more than bringing iPads and playing games
For 10 years I’ve been walking into hospital rooms and entering someone else’s story. For 10 years, I’ve made eye contact with the precious kiddo on the bed and told them that I was there to make sure they understood everything that was happening to and around them and to help them while it happens.
For 10 years, I have played UNO, Barbies, created art, blown countless bubbles, provided toys, got colors, given prizes, celebrated birthdays, sang songs, read books, attended programs, got popsicles, found the perfect stuffed animal, spied all the things in a room, learned all the favorites, celebrated kids doing really hard things well and the lady bringing the iPad.
And while all of those things are sacred and a precious part of my job, for 10 years I have also held mom’s and dad’s hands, wiped kiddos’ tears away, answered hard ‘what if’ questions, sat on the floor with scared patients and weeping family members, attended funerals (and weddings), pulled back hair, explained new diagnoses, helped kids plan their last wishes, told countless siblings that their brother or sister died, cried in the bathroom in the middle of a shift, checked to make sure my own kids were breathing at night, sat with kids as they tell their mom’s and dad’s goodbye and go to a new family or leave with a stranger, made handprints and footprints and cut locks of hair, and been totally humbled that I had the honor and privilege to undeservingly enter into the story of these precious patients and families.
I am a child life specialist. And after 10 years, it is still sometimes difficult to explain all the things that we get to do. It really is the best job, but contrary to the popular belief and cliché that we hold iPads and give prizes, there is a deep alliance between us and patients and families. Sometimes the alliance happens in seconds, and other times it takes multiple attempts at breaking the ice. But in the end, we are people there to be a patient’s and families’ ally and advocate no matter what.
I’ve worked inpatient on a floor with chronically ill children and now work in the Emergency Department with many different patients and families. I began my career in child life as an activity coordinator, who are vital people that make the logistics of the inpatient floors happen all the while providing play and normalizing patients’ environments. I have seen all the ways that child life is utilized across our health care system. Our main goal is to teach children how to positively cope in the stressful environment of the hospital. We do this primarily through preparation, support, education and normalizing the environment through developmentally appropriate play. However, there are many things that we provide that often are not as obvious.
Every day I leave work feeling somewhat overwhelmed, yet deeply grateful. All health care professionals understand this feeling. In one shift I’ve most likely been in rooms where I held back tears or been in rooms where I had to pull out my “mom voice” pretty quickly. But every shift I have helped ease a patient’s fear, laughed with patients and families, seen another patient do something very hard very well, and helped patients and families understand their health care experience. My hope is that I’ve always made my coworkers' jobs a little easier, and provided a great deal of comfort and peace to the patients and families I meet. I know I’m biased, but I can’t imagine the hospital without child life.
Get to know Ashley Pagenkopf
Ashley Pagenkopf is a Child Life Specialist in the Emergency Department at Cook Children's Medical Center. The Child Life program at Cook Children's offers a variety of services, all designed to make your experience at Cook Children's the best it can be. Our services include educating, preparing and supporting your child through tests and procedures, as well as coping with any life challenges you and your child may face. Child Life specialists work with kids and families to make their visit to the medical center easier and more comfortable. We offer your child and your family an opportunity to express and work through any fears and concerns you may have. We'll also provide an explanation about what's going to happen during your visit and work with parents, brothers and sisters and other family members who may be involved in your child's daily care.