For parents, one of the most difficult parts of surgery is handing their child off to strangers. Thanks to Child Life Specialists at Lurie Children’s, that road is a little easier.
“As Child Life Specialists, our job is twofold – to help the patient and family before their surgery to navigate the stressors that come along with being a patient in the hospital and help kids master their experiences with individualized care to increase their ability to cope with being in the hospital,” said Becca Mitsos, the Child Life Specialist for the Division of Pediatric Surgery.
Child Life Specialists are a resource to help children comprehend the process and ease the anxiety they may be feeling before an operation. “To navigate through the pre-op process, patients and their families will typically meet with me first. I sit with the child to get an idea of what they understand about why they are here. They do well when they know what to expect and are able to form a positive relationship with staff. I remind them we are here to help them, not hurt them,” said Becca. Child Life Specialists validate children’s emotions and promote positive coping methods as well as making sure all of their questions are answered.
Besides coping skills, Becca preps children for surgery through play therapy. Play therapy allows the patient to interact with what they are afraid of in a fun, innovative way. For example, Becca uses bubbles and the oxygen mask, which can sometimes be seen as a threatening piece of medical equipment, much less threatening. By using the mask to blow bubbles, the patient can see the mask does not cause pain. Aside from this, Becca shows children how a specific way to breathe while blowing bubbles, which matches how the anesthesia team will ask them to breathe with the mask.
Some children just require one surgery to treat their conditions, but others will need multiple operations, and Becca is sensitive to that. “Many associate their memory of a hospital setting with not liking what happens to them when they come here. So, I think ‘What do we want them to remember about their stay in case they have to come back?’” said Becca. By sparking positive memories connected to the hospital, it has increased these patients’ level of cooperation significantly on return visits.
Becca provides families who return for procedures with medical equipment to take home, as playing with the equipment in a less stressful environment allows kids more control. It allows them to role play their experiences and often times helps them work through negative past experiences. Recently, Becca used this to help a patient overcome the fear of wearing a mask. By seeing Becca wear a mask and giving the patient one to play with at home, she faced her fear. The patient’s mother continues to update Becca on how much this technique helped her little girl and expresses her gratitude.
To become a Child Life Specialist, Becca had to earn her Bachelor’s degree, as well as become certified through exams and extensive internships. This education prepares Child Life Specialists to be capable of assisting children with autism, Down syndrome, and sensory needs. For these children, she will ask them a series of questions beforehand to assess their baseline behavior and get to know how they react when they are nervous, anxious, sad, or happy. “You can’t rush the process of getting them adjusted to their surroundings. It takes time. I have to give them a chance to observe that I am a safe person,” said Becca. “I’m constantly asking myself ‘How can we minimize their sensory overload?’”
Becca loves being a support system for patients and their families at a time when they need it the most. “My favorite part of my job is helping kids be proud of themselves,” said Becca. “To see them walk in feeling so scared and master the experience is the coolest part.”