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Child Life celebrates 50 years of translating health care into child's play

child life

Child Life Specialist Charlotte Beales uses a medical teaching doll to explain a procedure to a young patient.

On many inpatient units, clinicians write daily goals for their patients on the white board in their rooms.

Child Life Specialist Lisa Vita was visiting a Yale New Haven Children's Hospital patient one day and saw on his white board, "Decrease IV fluids." Vita asked the patient if he knew what "IV" meant. He replied, "It's the number four."

The incident highlights the important role Vita and other Child Life specialists play in helping children understand, participate in and become more comfortable with their care.

"We speak a different language in the hospital," Vita said. "Our job is to de-mystify the healthcare experience for children by using language they understand – the language of play. We let them be kids in an environment that's not always set up for kids."

She and other department staff joined members of the Yale New Haven community and New Haven Mayor Toni Harp at a special event March 22 to celebrate 50 years of YNHCH's Child Life program.

The program that launched in 1967 at YNHH was one of the earlier programs established in the country. Over the years, it has grown in size and scope. Current staff include Manager Ellen Good and 21 certified Child Life specialists who work with children and families in pediatric inpatient units and outpatient facilities throughout Connecticut. The department also has an "outstanding" Arts for Healing program, with a manager and nine therapists and artists in residence, Good said.

A major part of a Child Life specialist's job is preparing children and their families for tests or procedures. When Katie Stein, who works at the Old Saybrook Medical Center, started 22 years ago in the Pediatric ED, she would show children who needed stitches the tools the physician would use, then invite children to suture a cloth doll before receiving stitches themselves.

“By reviewing procedures and having parents in our sessions, we find children need less pain medicine and are more cooperative,” Stein said. 

Child Life specialists also provide distraction and perform relaxation techniques during procedures, teach coping strategies, help clinical staff work with pediatric patients, offer support during bereavement and are involved in various hospital-wide projects and committees.

Child Life staff have extensive training and education, including degrees in child development, child psychology or education. Specialists must have a master's degree and pass a national certification exam. They must be familiar with the tools, techniques and treatments used in their patients' care, whether in hematology/oncology, transplantation, neurosciences, intensive care or other areas.

"You're with children and families during the most emotional times in their lives," Vita said. "I appreciate being able to play this role."