'I Never Dreamed My Work Anniversary Would Fall During a Pandemic'
A Child Life Specialist Shares Her Journey at Cook Children's
Fifteen years ago, I accepted my first job out of college at Cook Children’s. I never dreamed that this anniversary would fall during a pandemic. This has been one of the most challenging experiences to date as a parent and as a human, but I have surprisingly found peace under the Blue Peaks. When I look back and remember why I chose this profession and this place, it is the hope that I find here that anchors my heart no matter what is rocking the world. I knew then that I was signing up for a front row seat to suffering and I would be present for people’s most extreme moments in life. Even knowing that, I said yes because kids are amazing. They are the most beautiful representations of hope, resilience, endurance and faith in light of the most difficult struggles. While these beautiful, strong kiddos are the reason I chose this place and this career, the reason I stay is so much more.
September 7th marked my 15-year anniversary as an employee of Cook Children’s, but my journey began in 1998 as a junior volunteer. For 22 years, over half my life, Cook Children’s has been a part of my story. I have truly grown up under the Blue Roofs. I’ve learned some of life’s hardest lessons, experienced the greatest milestone moments, and felt the most intense grief in my time at Cook. I’ve been a volunteer, an intern, an employee, and a parent. The skybridge still smells the same, and each time I cross it, I can envision myself in a white polo shirt and khaki pencil skirt walking in as a teenager. I was so incredibly naïve – and I had no idea the stories that I would encounter and how they would change me. I still get a little burst of magic in my bones when I walk into the Atrium at nighttime and look up. My heart still skips a beat when I remember the atrium filled with kids going to camp and loading busses for Camp John Marc.
I laugh that my time started as a medical records volunteer. For some unknown reason, I chose that position over a gift shop position. I quickly realized that I wanted to be with the kids, and I was transferred to Child Life as a volunteer on the inpatient hematology/oncology unit (3 Main at the time). I read books to kids, played games, braided my hair in silly patterns, and started falling in love with watching children resiliently live into their diagnosis. I had no idea at the time that my passions were falling into place, and I was getting a glimpse into my calling.
The summer of 2001 I volunteered at my first camps – Camp Jubilee and Camp Sanguinity. It was because of camp and the campers that child life became a dream. I went on to spend nine summers at Camp Sanguinity. Now, I tell people that my dream job is to be a full-time camp counselor. I graduated with a community health degree from Texas A&M the summer of 2005, and my long-time plan was to move to the Northeast and go to grad school to become a child life specialist. I finished my undergrad with an internship at Cook in the Community Relations department (now Family Support Services). I was falling more and more in love, and knew that child life was still my end goal, but leaving the Blue Roofs and Cowtown was not. I applied for and accepted a position in the volunteer services department in 2005 and started grad school at TWU in the spring of 2006. In April 2006, my husband picked me up in the front drive by the fountain for our first date. I moved into an activity coordinator role with Child Life in January 2007, got married in August 2007, completed a child life internship in Dallas in the Fall of 2008, and finally became a child life specialist in May of 2009! I worked on 5 South for several years with pulmonary, infectious disease and other patients. I had the joy of directing Camp Broncho for a few years in that position before moving into a half-time role as an evening child life specialist. I moved into my role in the emergency department in 2014 and found a niche I didn’t know existed. In September 2015, I experienced the Blue Roofs from the other side as a parent in the NICU with my third daughter.
If you work in pediatric healthcare, you have most certainly had someone say to you, “I could never do what you do” or “I don’t know how you do it.” It begs the question why – why do we do what we do every day and how do we continue to show up day after day in the wake of some of the worst moments any of us could have imagined? Like I said before, kids are amazing. I get a front row seat into watching kids do hard things so incredibly well. Often, they start off not believing they can do it, and finish with a confidence that they are the bravest kid to ever grace the Blue Peaks. It’s the most inspiring transformation to watch, and I often get the privilege of being the coach, cheerleader and encourager. The reason that I keep coming back is not only for the kids, though. Over the years I’ve also been inspired and changed by parents, siblings and the most incredible co-workers.
When you watch or walk through suffering at any level with other people, there is a bond – an intimacy – a vulnerability that can never be manufactured in any other experience. Please don’t misunderstand - I am present for some of the most painful, heartbreaking experiences for children and families that I would never wish on anyone. But, it’s the human connection that keeps me coming back. It’s the moments when tears well up because I totally understand why a mom is at the very end of herself. It’s the moments when I catch the eyes of a worried sibling and get to explain what is happening to their brother or sister. It’s the moments when a kiddo looks me right in the eyes and takes the deep breaths to cope through the pain. It’s the moments when I sit on the floor with a grieving mom or dad or when a co-worker’s arm wraps around me to remind me that I’m not alone in this moment. It’s the silly dad jokes that keep us all laughing through minor procedures. Some days, it’s the walk down to Starbucks with people that know me and love me. It’s the glimpses and moments where we are reminded that we are real, and we really need each other. This job and this place breed human connection in real time. In a world where so much connection is made through a virtual platform or on a surface level, what happens between these walls is genuine and raw. While it’s not always happy, joy is often present! It’s the laughter through tears. It’s the endless parties and celebrations, the syringe water fights, and the constant permission to be super silly because this is in fact a children’s hospital. Whether it’s a joy-filled moment, a silly moment, a painful moment or a gut-wrenching moment, it is moments that I would never, ever trade. All of these moments contribute to a bigger story of compassion, empathy, and love. This is a story that I don’t want to miss. So, I will keep learning, loving, growing and changing under the Blue Roofs. I will continue to keep my heart as soft as possible to the stories I encounter each shift because pandemic or no pandemic, this job is a gift simply because people are a gift. I am so very grateful for 15 years and pray for many, many more.
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.