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March is Child Life Month

“Radiology,” “chemotherapy” and “dialysis” are big terms for little patients to understand, and even bigger medical experiences to go through. So, when anxiety strikes before a procedure or things get overwhelming during a hospital stay, a very special kind of health care professional is there to help calm fears, make sense of it all, and even inspire fun and laughter — child life experts.

This Child Life Month is a great time to learn more about the meaningful work this dedicated unit does each and every day.

At Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego, our Child Life Services team comprises 17 certified child life specialists (CCLS) and two child life assistants. Fun fact: Child Life Services is one of the programs at the Hospital that is funded entirely through donations, a sure sign of its value and effectiveness. Members of the team are available to patients, parents and siblings seven days a week in inpatient and outpatient areas. Just some of the areas they can visit are outlined below — their reach throughout the Hospital is broad!

“Our staff is there to serve the unique psychosocial needs of our patients and their families,” explains Jacqui Small, LCSW, manager of medical social work and child life. “Child life specialists can help patients and families cope with the hospital experience, alleviate stress and anxiety, and understand their diagnosis and treatments in an approachable way.”  To become a CCLS, candidates must earn a bachelor’s or master’s in child life, child development or a related field; complete a 120-hour practicum and 600-hour internship; and pass a national certification exam.

On the floors of Rady Children’s, Child Life Services can support patient families in the following ways:

  • Offer psychological tools, pre-surgery education and tours to help patients and their loved ones get familiar with the hospital environment before admission.
  • Hold developmentally appropriate discussions about the child’s condition and care plan. For example, rather than saying, “IV,” a specialist may say, “small bendy or flexy straw;” or use something along the lines of “medicine that will help you fall into a deep sleep” instead of “put you to sleep.” This can work to mitigate feelings of confusion, fear or being overwhelmed. Staff can also help explain death and dying and offer bereavement support to families.
  • Provide education and coping techniques for managing treatments, side effects and hospital stays. Patients, parents and siblings can all take part in this, and the child life team will tailor their approach to each person or family’s needs.
  • Engage in medical and therapeutic play, which is open to both patients and siblings. This approach helps to facilitate the expression of feelings, promotes a sense of control, and helps kids gain a mastery and understanding of medical procedures and health. It’s also a great opportunity to continue healthy growth and development, interact with peers, and divert attention from stress. Depending on preference, this can be in a patient’s room, or in one of the Hospital’s five activity rooms.
  • Visit patients’ schools for presentations that will help classmates understand a child’s diagnosis and hospitalization and support them before and during their return to school.
  • Connect parents with education and resources on child development and how a complex health care experience may affect their child.

Keep reading to see what a few members of the team have to say about what inspired them to pursue a career in child life and what they find most fulfilling about their jobs.

Taylor Keightley, Lead CCLS

I have been a child life specialist for almost seven years and have worked at Rady Children’s for just over six years. I started in the Emergency Department and then launched the child life program in Surgical Services. During this time, I implemented several initiatives to help staff engage with Child Life and collaborate on patient cases. These included emailing child life tips of the month and giving out an award called “Friend of Child Life” to staff that are outstanding advocators and supporters of Child Life.

Most recently, I accepted a new position within the child life team as the lead child life specialist. This is a new role created in 2021, and I’m the second person to assume this position. I am very excited about the opportunities that will come with molding a newer role. Specifically, I am looking forward to assist in grant writing to fund additional positions, facilitate donations within our community, and working with other departments/teams across the Hospital such as the Foundation and tMarketing/ Communications. I am thrilled about this next step in my career and hope to help Child Life have an even larger impact on our organization. We have such an amazing team!

Danni Leonard, CCLS, Hematology/Oncology

My name is Danni and I’ve been a child life specialist at Rady Children’s since 2015. I was thrilled to have done my internship at Rady Children’s and was even more excited when I was hired in the Hematology/Oncology clinic. More recently, I launched the child life program at California Protons Cancer Therapy Center, where I support our patients receiving proton therapy. I’ve loved learning about the therapy and figuring out the best ways to help these kiddos and families during their treatment.

In college I knew I wanted to work with kids in some capacity, but I didn’t know exactly how. I ended up in a life-changing conversation on an airplane. I sat next to a very kind woman who ran a camp for kids with hand differences. By the end of the flight, she’d recruited me to volunteer at her camp, which I did for five years. The camp director was a child life specialist, and I learned so much from her. I attended my first child life conference when I was a junior, and I knew this was what I wanted to do. I declared a child development major and began pursuing my goal of becoming a child life specialist.

At Rady Children’s, I’ve always worked in Hem/Onc. I feel very fortunate to walk alongside our patients during their cancer journey. My favorite part is having the opportunity to make the Hospital and cancer treatment less scary for our patients. Child life can explain a cancer diagnosis in a way that a kiddo can understand, prepare them for a procedure so they know what to expect, and use therapeutic play to help calm their nerves. It’s important that the patients and families know that child life will be with them every step of the way. I’m inspired every day by my patients – they’re some of the bravest kids I know!

Aislinn Mooney, CCLS, Emergency Department

I have been a child life specialist working in the Emergency Department at Rady Children’s for three years. My mom has been a pediatric ER nurse for almost 30 years, and the positive impact she has made on the children she works with inspired me to want to work with children in the hospital setting. I quickly realized child life was the perfect fit for me and worked towards a career in this field. I have traveled around the country for my clinical experiences and landed back in my hometown of San Diego. Rady Children’s is extra special to me because I have the incredible opportunity to work for the hospital I went to as a child and now able to serve the children and families of this community.

I have always had a passion for working with hospitalized children, and as a child life specialist I am able to support children and families in a unique way that I am very proud of. I have always wanted to make a positive difference in the lives of these children and support them in what could potentially be some of the most difficult situations of their lives. Child life specialists work very hard to ensure patients have the most optimal experiences throughout their hospitalization, which changes the perception of the hospital as an unfamiliar and scary place. Also, I love that our role focuses on supporting the child and family as a whole and provide lasting coping skills they can carry with them throughout their lives.

My favorite part is seeing a positive change in a child when they have overcome a fear, coped well during a stressful procedure, or accomplished something that once felt impossible to them. In the Emergency Department, many children are immediately anxious or fearful about being in this setting and the unknown. I enjoy having the ability to assess a child and family’s unique needs and come up with a plan for what we can do as a team to meet them where they are to enhance their coping during their ED visit. I have the opportunity to be an advocate for a patient and family, making them feel heard and important, and offer strategies or tools to optimize outcomes. I love collaborating with other staff members of the multidisciplinary team to make a child and family’s ED visit or first experience to the hospital a positive one. Hearing how grateful and appreciative a parent is of our services, or how proud children are of themselves, is extremely rewarding.

Child life specialists are an integral part of the health care team. I enjoy working closely with our nurses, physicians and other staff to create experiences for our patients and families that reflect our organization’s excellent standard of care. We provide in-service trainings, workshops and presentations throughout the year to staff in all departments to enhance the care we provide when working with hospitalized children and teens. Other staff members can utilize these skills to consider ways to support patients of all ages. As a teaching hospital, the child life team’s work to educate staff on ways to reduce the perceived threat of the hospital and enhance patient coping is essential!

Natalie Valencia, CCLS, Surgical Inpatient Unit, Rehabilitation Medicine

I began my career as a child life specialist at Rady Children’s, where I have worked for about 2.5 years; I also interned here. I heard about this field when I was an undergraduate majoring in child & adolescent development. Something just clicked when I discovered it. I believe it is a great privilege to be able to work and support children (of all ages) and their families during a vulnerable time in their lives. We wear many hats as child life specialists. Sometimes you’ll find me providing medical play with a patient, then celebrating a patient’s birthday, and then running off to prep & support a patient heading off to the operating room.

I am currently a full-time employee and split my time between the surgical inpatient unit and Rehabilitation Medicine. Many rehabilitation patients have experienced trauma that caused significant injuries and potentially altered their cognitive and physical abilities, which will affect them even after their hospitalization. It is vital to focus on providing interventions that support patients’ coping, pain management and emotional and psychosocial needs, and provide coping techniques that can support their needs beyond their hospitalization. On the surgical unit, I meet with patients to assess their understanding and anxiety level prior to their scheduled surgery and provide developmentally appropriate preparation to aid understanding and positive coping. I also have access to the playroom, which is a safe environment where I provide opportunities for play (private individual play) and give patients a sense of normalcy throughout their hospitalization.

Rady Children’s is very diverse, and we meet families from all parts of the world. I am beyond grateful to have been given multiple opportunities to meet and support Spanish-speaking families (¡Si hablo español!). My favorite part about my job is advocating for patients’ needs and empowering them to be involved in their care. It is amazing to witness when a patient develops the confidence to express themselves and use their new coping skills to get them through a difficult procedure or manage their pain. The hospital can be very intimidating and scary, but being able to collaborate with parents to create coping plans, share soothing techniques and give them a role in their child’s care makes a significant positive difference with their coping as a family.

Erin Carpenter, CCLS, Medical Unit, Telemedicine Services

I have worked as a child life specialist at Rady Children’s for three years and have been a child life specialist for seven years. I have always had a huge passion for working with children. It’s a very meaningful job to be able to provide psychosocial care and support to patients and their families. I am constantly inspired by each child’s incredible ability to be resilient despite the many challenges of a hospitalization.

I work full time but have a split role. Part of the week I work on the medical unit providing patients with new diagnosis education, preparing and supporting them through procedures and surgeries, normalizing their environment, helping them cope with hospital stressors and reducing their anxiety. I also work a few days a week providing telemedicine services. I have been given a unique role to pilot this program, offering child life services through telemedicine for the first time at Rady Children’s. I provide one-on-one sessions, coping/support groups and therapeutic art groups for kids and teenagers of all ages.

Many kids who have a chronic illness don’t stay in the hospital regularly, so they are not receiving ongoing child life services. This program provides a unique opportunity for Child Life Services to reach patients of different populations outside of the Hospital. I work with patients both individually and in groups virtually to normalize their chronic illness, provide education to increase their understanding of their diagnosis in each developmental stage, help with expression of feelings, cope with anxiety surrounding their diagnosis, and connect them to peers for support.