Their Job Is to Play & Prep Kids for Pain. Meet This Hospital’s Child Life Specialists.

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While handling all the expected professional challenges of working as a recreational therapist at a children’s hospital, Danielle Jaffey encountered a new one recently - she was soundly defeated in a game of tabletop hockey by a 12-year-old who had never even played before.

There are some things they just don’t prepare you for in school.

Jaffey, a Child Life Specialist, took some good-natured ribbing from the victor, patient Freddie Ramirez, 12, of Hillside, who sat at the table connected to medical monitoring equipment, as well as from fellow staff members, but Jaffey was gracious.

“I have worked with adults for a little while but I love working with kids,” she said. “I would choose kids any day.”

To anyone, but especially to a child with a serious medical condition, the hospital can be an intimidating environment inhabited by scurrying strangers in medical gowns, their faces obscured by surgical masks, heads hidden under medical hair nets.

Add to that the sight of modern medical technology similar to what one might see in a science fiction movie about an alien abduction and the experience can be distressing in ways the child can’t even comprehend.

The Association of Child Life Professionals states that experiences related to healthcare can lead to feelings of fear, confusion, loss of control and isolation that can inhibit their development and have negative effects on their physical and emotional health and well-being.

The Child Life Department at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital in Paterson employs a comprehensive approach to helping children through their hospital experience whether the child may be receiving chemotherapy as an outpatient or is in the hospital for a longer or even extended period for surgery, or other procedures.

The first component is therapeutic, age appropriate play which helps to prepare children for what to expect during procedures and surgeries. Children are taught about illness, tests and the plan of care put in place by their medical team, and finally, there is distraction, to provide pain relief, before, during or after painful procedures.

On a break from the tabletop hockey game, patient Freddie spoke of the folks he encounters in the Child Life Department. ”They’re really kind,” he said, " and fun to talk to, and play games with.

“They keep me really entertained while I’m in the hospital. If I’m down in the hospital and not feeling well, they really boost my energy up.”

Child Life Specialist Isabella Calonico sat with patient Sofia Espinal, 7, in a room marked with a plaque outside the door that read “The Valerie Fund Children’s Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders.” The table in front of them was scattered with markers and a coloring book, but mostly brightly colored toy medical equipment.

Calonico stroked the back of Sofia’s stuffed animal cat, which was perched on the table. “What should we do first if she’s getting blood work?” Calonico asked.

Sofia quietly replied “A shot,” as she wrapped a tourniquet around the stuffed animal’s paw.

Picking up and putting down a toy version of a hypodermic needle, Calonico said to Sofia, “You can give this shot but I wanted to show you the real one. Can we do the real one together?”

Sofia nodded.

“This is where the needle is,’’ said Calonico, as she tore the packaging open and uncapped the real needle. “You’re not going to touch it today. You can hold my hand.” Together, Sofia’s hand on Calonico’s, they inserted the needle into the stuffed animal’s paw and after gently pulling the needle out, Calonico explained the next step. “Your blood goes in this tube and that’s how they check.”

Gitchell said a lot of what they do in the Child Life Department is just normalizing a hospital experience depending on what the child is going through. “So it could be doing activities that they typically do at home or at school and it could be doing new activities here that they might not be able to do elsewhere.”

Calonico added, “Sofia’s here like pretty often... we’ve done some medical play before, but I just decided to throw in some things that she hasn’t seen, like, she hasn’t seen a real needle… Sometimes they’re afraid. So today she wasn’t afraid at all, which is great.”

The hospital also provides what might be called extra-curricular support for children on special occasions, according to Kristen Agnes, Public Relations Coordinator at St. Joseph’s Healthcare System.

“Birthdays, end of treatments when they can finish their chemotherapy, we’ll buy special gifts for them for that,” she said. “We go all out for the holidays. We had the playroom decorated like crazy for Halloween and we handed out costumes for all of the kids.”

In the room of patient Paula Lopez Morales, 3, Child Life Specialist Stephanie Spero was working with the young child, helping her blow bubbles while laying up in bed, and then letting her pop them from the wand Jaffe held to Paula’s lips.

Next, Spero warmly encouraged Paula’s efforts to get a red crayon to the page of a Disney Princess coloring book. Paula began to color and managed sporadic smiles in response to Spero’s enthusiastic reassurances.

Even the hospital’s youngest patients are included in the program’s family-centered care.

Further down a hall, the sounds of a softly strummed classical guitar emanated from the Intermediate Nursery where Music Therapist Gregory Rupp was serenading several infants in a dimly-lit room, while they were attended to by Laura Trongone, a registed nurse

It was purely instrumental music, but the finger-picked notes, played slowly and deliberately on the soft, nylon guitar strings conjured the lyrics:

“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine

You make me happy when skies are gray

You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you

Please don’t take my sunshine away.”

The Child Life Department at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital depends solely on private funding to support their children’s quality-of-life programs.

Last October, tax and advisory firm Sax LLP hosted its 11th annual 4 MILER at Garret Mountain Reservation, a family-friendly, run/walk event coordinated and facilitated by Sax’s philanthropic arm, The Sax Charitable Foundation, to benefit The Child Life Department at St. Joseph’s.

Since the 4 MILER’s inception in 2012, $800,00 has been raised and donated, making Sax LLP the largest single financial contributor to the Child Life Department.

Stuart Berger, Sax LLP Partner and Chairman of the 4 Miler at Garret Mountain said, “2022 marked our largest fundraising year yet, which says a lot after slowly returning to normalcy after the pandemic. We are thrilled to be able to support Child Life in this way and look forward to continuing to do so in the future.”

Recent Child Life Department enhancements include its newly upgraded system to allow children to watch movies and shows while getting an MRI to help ease their fear and anxiety, along with new technology for both recreational activity and medical education, and expanded therapeutic services, many of which were put on hold throughout COVID.

According to Gitchell, all units in the department have now been decorated for the holidays, which can be an especially difficult time to be in the hospital for children and for their families. Pediatrics now looks like a gingerbread house, the Pediatric ICU is themed “Winter in New York,” and the Valerie Fund Center has become a “Winter Wonderland.” Santa Claus, of course, will be making a personal appearance on Christmas morning for all the kids at the hospital.

“The future of the program is exciting,” said Gitchell, “as we continue to grow and provide resources to more and more children and families each day because of the support from SAX.”

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