Child Life Specialists Provide Compassion, Support

Photo of music therapist and child patient.

Caitlyn Brodecker is a typical 13-year-old from Camdenton, Missouri. She likes shopping, school and hanging out with her friends. She spends too much time on her iPhone and has her moments with two younger sisters. She also has stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Caitlyn was diagnosed with lymph node cancer in her chest in September 2016.

“It’s been a lot to take in, but from the beginning we’ve had special help,” said Jenna Bishop, Caitlyn’s mom. “During our first inpatient stay, we learned about the Child Life Program — and that’s when Caitlyn met Corinne.”

Corinne Joplin is one of 10 child life specialists at MU Children’s Hospital. As part of a comprehensive health care team, child life specialists are trained and certified to address the emotional needs of hospitalized children. They provide a strong support system for patients and their families to help them understand and navigate their hospital experience.

“Before all this happened, I didn’t even know such a program existed,” Jenna said. “Everything here has been amazing, but the Child Life team — it’s like they came out of nowhere at just the right times because they knew Caitlyn needed something.”

“The child life specialists really have made a difference from Day One,” said Tyler Bishop, Caitlyn’s dad. “They were able to explain things to Caitlyn in kid-terms. They’ve arranged for MU athlete visits that we’ve all enjoyed. They are just as warmhearted as you can get, and we appreciate them very much.”

Child life specialists provide support in several areas of MU Children’s Hospital, such as the pediatric inpatient unit, the pediatric intensive care unit, and the hospital’s emergency, radiology and surgical departments. The team also provides outpatient support for the hospital’s Children’s Blood Disorders and Cancer Unit and the procedural suite.

“Health care is a part of our lives,” said Timothy Fete, MD, medical director of Children’s Hospital, chair of the MU School of Medicine’s Department of Child Health and Children’s Miracle Network Professor in Pediatrics. “But for a child, it can be a scary place full of strange sights and sounds. I am so proud and appreciative of the work our child life specialists do to create a positive healing experience for our patients and their families.”

For Caitlyn, child life specialists have made an even deeper impact — one that may lead to a career in the field.

“They make me feel really comfortable when I’m here at the hospital,” Caitlyn said. “Now that I know what they do, I want to be a child life specialist when I get older.”

When told of Caitlyn’s newfound desire, an emotional Joplin responded while trying to hold back tears.

“I’ve never had a family tell me that,” Joplin said. “You do what you do to make a difference, to make things better. Everything we do here is for that purpose. To know that something we’ve done was so significant is very touching. It’s very humbling. I’m so proud to be a part of this awesome team.”

A cycle of hope

For child life specialist Angie Ball, her experiences as a teenager helped define her calling.

When she was 13, Ball’s younger brother was diagnosed with a form of cancer called T-cell lymphoma. He was treated at MU Health Care for three years. During those years, Ball recalled hearing about child life specialists.

“I didn’t know what their titles were, but there were these women who really helped calm my brother down,” Ball said. “I remember he would refuse to let them start his spinal taps unless one of them was with him. Come to find out, these women were child life specialists. The more time he spent at the hospital, the more I got to know the Child Life team. I could see how much he changed when they would walk into the room. His face would light up and they always seemed to make things so much better.”

Now, Ball calls some of those same compassionate healers her colleagues. Leann Reeder, Nora Hager and Merideth Lehman helped Ball’s family cope during that formative time.

“My brother passed away from his cancer when he was 16, but the child life specialists made such a huge impact on my brother’s life, on my life and on my family,” Ball said. “I wanted to be able to do that for someone else as well. I wanted to use that experience to be able to help other people.”

A ready resource

Pediatric patients admitted to Children’s Hospital can be seen by a child life specialist. Not only does the team help these patients, but they also help children at University Hospital’s Level I trauma center when needed. 

And it’s not only children who sometimes need the help of a child life specialist; parents often rely on their expertise as well.

“As a parent, it’s been great to have the child life specialists here,” said Katie Carroll. “I get to see my daughter interact and ask questions that I know she wouldn’t have even thought to ask if the child life specialists didn’t bring in a medical doll to demonstrate. It’s almost like having a built-in counselor. I get an insight into her head and I can see what more I need to talk to her about.”

Katie’s 8-year-old daughter Kadyn has been treated at Children’s Hospital off and on since she was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. Katie remembers the first time she had to leave Kadyn at the hospital. Kadyn’s grandmother stayed behind while Katie took Kadyn’s twin brother to his first day of kindergarten. Having to leave her child at the hospital was a gut-wrenching decision, but Katie knew her daughter was in good hands.

“Kadyn was sad because she was missing the first day of school and her mom wasn’t here,” said Betsy Stack, Kadyn’s grandmother. “I remember that one child life specialist after the other kept coming in to see her. Emily (Herzog) would play music with her, and others came in with funny mustaches and loads of activities. It was almost like clockwork. Kadyn was so uplifted and couldn’t wait for mom to come back so she could tell her.”

For Lehman, those moments are what it’s all about. 

“Every interaction we have is unique,” she said. “We know that our services really make a difference. Sometimes you don’t realize that until our kids come back a few years later and they actually remember you. That’s what keeps us going.”