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Pat Kirkland, Wolfson Children's Hospital manager of Family Support Services, is shown in a playroom decorated like a space ship, donated by former Jacksonville Jaguar Maurice Jones-Drew.
Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Feb. 1, 201712:00 PM EST

Workspace: Wolfson Children's Hospital's child life specialists help kids understand what's happening

by: Fran Ruchalski Contributing Writer

Hospitals can be scary places, especially for a child.

People constantly coming and going. Strangers doing things young patients don’t understand. And having no control over what’s going on.

But having someone explain what’s going to happen may make them feel a bit better.

At Wolfson Children’s Hospital, that’s where Pat Kirkland comes in.

It’s her job to help the young patients feel secure and have a more positive experience during their hospital stay — which leads to more positive outcomes.

Kirkland is the manager of Family Support Services and a child life specialist.

She started with Baptist Health more than 36 years ago in the main hospital as an occupational therapy assistant. About 11 years later, she moved over to Wolfson as a child life specialist.

The Child Life Department began in 1979 with one person. Today there are 12 certified child life specialists and a music therapist in the department.

Kirkland was promoted to manager three years ago, which meant she gave up working in the clinical setting. Her life became more about meetings and planning, writing proposals and supervising staff. It’s allowed her to help grow the department.

And it’s been with the constant support of the hospital’s president, Michael Aubin.

When Aubin started six years ago, the team numbered about seven.

“The first day I met him he asked me about how many members we had on our team. He told me we need about 14,” Kirkland said.

So, they are very close to where he wants them to be.

“We have a child life specialist on pretty much every unit and in every department,” she said.

Kirkland admits what they do doesn’t generate revenue.

But because it makes the child’s stay in the hospital more comfortable, the administration recognizes the vital nature of the department’s efforts.

“Unless you’ve had a kid in the hospital recently, most people don’t know much about our profession,” she said.

Team members are much more than glorified babysitters. But becoming a certified child life specialist does not yet have a well-defined path.

There are fewer than 50 college programs offering a degree program in the field.

The minimum qualifications are a bachelor’s degree in a related field and certification through the Association of Child Life Professionals. A master’s degree will be mandatory after 2019.

Kirkland has a master’s in Health Science, but envisions the organization will require a specialized degree in the future.

As part of the treatment team at Wolfson, child life specialists look at the psycho/social side of the healing process.

“We talk to kids and families in a language they understand. We explain procedures. We support them through procedures so they can cope successfully and have an excellent experience,” Kirkland said.

“We teach coping skills so that they can use those skills in coping with difficult situations, in the hospital and outside,” she added.

This often includes siblings. For example, when a baby is born and is admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit, the other children in the family don’t understand why mom doesn’t come home with the baby and it’s not the happy event everyone pictures.

“They can’t rationalize everything that’s happening,” Kirkland said.

Recognizing that need, the child life specialists explain what the baby is going through, any equipment to which the infant might be attached and what they can expect the baby to look like, using a teaching doll named Baby Riley.

This can help siblings understand what they see when they get to see the new baby.

“We talk to the kids in a way they understand so it’s not so scary,” Kirkland said. “Because if they didn’t have the preparation and they just came in, you can imagine what they might be thinking.”

When the children aren’t able to visit the babies in the neonatal intensive care unit in person, the child life specialist brings an iPad into the unit to transmit video like a Skype call. The siblings and parents can see the baby on a computer in the media center on the first floor.

The children also are given pictures of the babies and encouraged to make scrapbooks of what they’ve seen so they can have those memories of their sibling’s early life.

To prepare a child for going through any kind of procedure, the child life specialist takes them through the experience.

This includes getting to see and touch the breathing masks, the electrodes that will connect them to telemetry equipment, the blood pressure cuffs and other equipment that will be used. It helps to allay some of their fears.

Kirkland believes the child’s hospital room should be a safe space for them. That’s why they do many invasive or painful procedures in a separate treatment room.

But these are not cold, sterile environments.

The room on the fourth floor in the Weaver Tower is painted like a treehouse, complete with a trapdoor with a ladder in the floor and a treasure chest full of prizes.

It was designed by the child life specialists that work on the floor, in conjunction with the design company.

“We’re actually hoping to get funding to get all of our treatment rooms redone and be more child friendly,” Kirkland states, “Is this life-saving? No. Is it very important? Yes.”

Parents are encouraged to accompany their children during procedures.

Instead of having the patient lie down on a table where they might feel vulnerable, the staff uses more comfortable positions, like sitting in their parent’s lap or with one of the specialists, making the child feel more in control and safer about what’s happening.

“It helps them be able to cope better with undergoing different procedures,” Kirkland said.

Play is another important aspect of what the specialists do and it gives them another chance to interact with the children in a safe environment. The playrooms are a fun place with toys, games and computer apps. Each floor’s playroom has its own theme.

On the sixth floor, the playroom is decorated to look like a space ship. It was donated by former Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew who had wanted to be an astronaut.

The hospital has the Get Well Network in every room, enabling the kids to play games, watch movies and television and see special entertainment events on computers.

Patients in isolation can remotely play with cats at the Jacksonville Humane Society using the internet in the Play with Cats program, moving the toys in the kitty’s cage using their keyboard.

In addition to visits from therapy dogs, patients can have their own dogs visit them in the Comforting Paws room on the first floor of the hospital.

The family dog program was Aubin’s idea and was the first of its kind in the country.

The hospital recently added Buddy Bot to the staff. The two-foot robot sings and dances and provides a distraction for the kids. But they’ll also do things with him that they won’t with an adult — because it’s fun.

For Kirkland, talking to the kids about the procedures they are about to go through and preparing them is rewarding because she sees an immediate impact on their lives.

When they come through a procedure successfully and they’re playful and happy, she says, “it’s great to see that reaction in a patient and family and know that you’ve made a little bit of a difference in their stay.”

She feels humbled that families allow the child life team to travel their road with them.

Sometimes, this includes unhappy outcomes, with which Kirkland believes they help the families to cope.

When they know a child is coming to the end, the specialists can assist in memory-making activities.

“It’s really hard. But my team is very creative in coming up with different ways to provide lasting memories,” she said. “It’s a really hard part of the job and the journey, but because it’s so meaningful to the families, it’s something we’re proud to be a part of.”

Kirkland may be more involved with keeping the department going these days, but she still enjoys getting out onto the hospital floors.

While she thinks she doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary, Kirkland knows the value of what she and her staff do.

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