The Children’s Hospital of Denver takes an approach to patient care that not too many other hospitals do. Not many hospitals, for instance, use magic wands and stuffed toys that sound as if they’re passing gas to help with patient care. At Children’s, however, these toys equal smiles and smiles equal happy patients.
In fact, Children’s has professionals who play with the patients to help with the healing process. In fact, the hospital has 13 child life specialists – the largest staff of this kind in Colorado.
The main premise of what we’re doing is trying to minimize the numerous effects of hospitalization on kids," said Tommi Joseph a child life specialist who works in oncology. "Whether a kid is here for a day or for a year, every step along the way they are dealing with issues based on their development, their understanding, separation from their families and pain. We always come in from the perspective of each particular child and that particular day and where they are at that time, and that is constantly changing."
According to Teresa Eberheart, child life specialist on the third floor, the importance of play is the crux of what they do.
"By using play as a tool, we all get benefits from it," Eberheart said. "The activities we choose can be used to help get the child out of bed or increase the movement of their bowels and start that healing process – emotionally, physically and cognitively.
"Some people feel that children in their play experience is one of the most accurate ways to assess how they are doing emotionally and physically," Eberheart said. "Emotionally, they can feel free to express themselves. Physically, kids will have less anxiety, so you can truly assess that aspect."
Helping kids to play and deal with pain in a different way is an idea about which the child life specialists at Children’s work to educate staff as well. "If a child is playing that does not mean they are not experiencing pain, but that they may be able to experience their pain in a more effective way," Joseph said.
"For example, I had a girl on my floor who was just screaming in pain constantly, so I went in and we were able to do some activities that she would participate in. There were episodes of really intense pain for her, but because the activity that was presented to her was something very comforting to her, she was able to take that time in between the episodes of intense pain and refocus herself on the activities and have a little normalcy, have a little repose and relaxation."
According to Eberheart, refocusing someone’s attention on an activity rather than what hurts can actually decrease a person’s pain.
"If you focus on something other than the pain, the messages can’t get to your brain as intensely, so if you focus on your play experience, those messages aren’t getting to your brain as intensely and it can help to decrease the pain."
It is the balance between both medicine and play that can help result in the best possible outcome for the patient, according to the child life specialists.
"The metaphor I use with my older patients is cable TV," Eberheart said. "With just regular TV you get some okay channels, which is kind of like having just the medicine to help your pain. But, when you bring in the play piece or the recreational piece for an older child, it’s like plugging in the cable – then all of a sudden it’s really good and you have the real effect."
Using a metaphor such as this also is an important part of what child life specialists do at Children’s. For many of the patients in the hospital, it is their first experience and it is the challenge of the child life specialists to find a way to help them understand.
In many cases with younger children, this may involve playing with toy medical supplies to explain what things are and what they do, helping the child feel more comfortable around these tools.
"Because of our developmental backgrounds, we are always assessing the child we work with," Joseph said. "We are always looking at them developmentally, but also their verbal and non-verbal cues – we’re doing a lot of watching of what they’re doing and how they’re responding, because our ultimate goal is to get them the information they can handle. There is a lot more going on than just basic play."
According to Eberheart, there has been an increase in child life specialists not only at Children’s over the years, but nationally as well. "What’s driving that is a greater understanding of non-pharmacological intervention, in terms of the value of those and the understanding that they truly do have a place in health care and that they truly are effective.
"Although from a distance, what we’re doing might just look like play, there is a thought process involved and it’s very therapeutic. The wonderful thing about it is that it does just look like play, but it makes a huge difference."