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Play with Purpose Not All Fun and Games

The Vital Role of a Child Life Specialist

Julia Smeltzer brings her dog to work every day. She wears a t-shirt and scrubs. And 'play' is in her job description.

Don’t be confused though. Julia and her dog, Journey, have a big responsibility at Cook Children's. Yes, they are there to play, but their mission is always to give patients and their families a sense of normalcy during a stressful time. From visiting children in their hospital rooms to supporting them during procedures, child life specialists, like Julia, help patients cope with what they are experiencing while giving them a sense of control.

"My favorite part of the job is being able to help children overcome their anxiety. It's incredible to watch something that was really scary to a patient at first become no big deal," she said.

If you've ever been to Cook Children's Medical Center, you may have seen Julia or others in child life shooting Nerf guns in the hallways, painting with patients or taking a golden retriever for a walk. Their jobs are fun, but also very important. They help educate, prepare and support children through tests and procedures. They are specially trained to speak to each child on his or her learning comprehension level.

"When I was a freshman in college, I couldn't decide whether I wanted to become a nurse or a teacher," said Julia. "Then a family friend was hit head-on by a drunk driver."

That friend was 9 months pregnant. Both survived, but the baby had a stroke and required extensive time in the hospital. It was a child life specialist who was called in to help the baby's older sibling during the family's difficult time.

"Helping siblings feel included is a big part of what we do," said Julia. "After I learned about child life, everything fell into place. For me, it was the perfect combination of medicine and child development."

She went on to get a bachelor's degree and become a certified child life specialist, taking a position with Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital in Hollywood, Florida. In 2009, Julia packed her bags and took off for Texas where she would soon find her calling.

"I wanted to have Journey with me because I've seen the difference these dogs make," she said. "We visit a lot of patients with serious illnesses and it helps them open up. For some reason, when they are petting a dog they will start talking about things that they haven't mentioned before."

Journey not only accompanies Julia during her 8 hour shift, she also lives with her.

"In the morning, I put her vest on and she knows it's time for work. But at the end of the day, she rests and plays just like a regular dog," she said.

There are four certified therapy dogs at Cook Children's and more than 50 staff members in the child life department. Their roles range from specialists like Julia to music therapists, artists, educators and even clowns. It's one of the largest child life departments in the country and a vital part of Cook Children's promise to improve the health of every child in our region, by giving patients and their siblings the opportunity to be who they are first and foremost, kids.

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