Child Life Services team members Katrena Froh and Lindsey Bailey giggled uncontrollably as they squirted paint droplets of purple, magenta and sapphire toward a poster board in Ashley Lewis’ seventh-floor room.
Ashley, 17, has seen her share of syringes as a patient at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, but never used quite like this before.
Ashley and Child Life team members Froh and Bailey filled their syringes with paint and shot it at the white poster board. Problem is, the poster board wasn’t the only landing spot for their pigment.
By the time the trio finished with the masterpiece, the walls, floor, windows and even the visitors standing in the room had rainbow droplets to show for the experience.
It’s all part of child life’s mission—to help children escape from the reality of a hospital stay, if only for a few moments, to bring a few shades of fun into an atmosphere often tinted with fear.
“This is a good thing to do because if someone is feeling sad, we can crush the sadness,” Froh said. “This is another form of medical play. We take things ordinarily used for medical things and we turn them into fun play. We can make some pretty cool art with this.”
Froh and Bailey dutifully scrubbed the wayward paint splatters, but they were right on target with their mission.
Ashley grinned brighter than a yellow paint swatch as Froh counted down to the next round for the three-person firing squad.
“1, 2, 3,” Froh called out as they all plunged their thumbs into the syringes and paint flew like raindrops across the room.
Ashley’s mom, Erin, called the session amazing.
“It made her really happy,” Erin said. “It’s making her really enjoy her time here.”
Ashley has spent a lot of time at the children’s hospital, sometimes months at a time after open heart surgery and then lung complications.
“They keep her distracted,” the Holland woman said. “She likes painting and coloring so Child Life is right up her alley.”
A smattering of activities
Splatter painting is just a small smattering of what the Child Life team does.
They console during difficult times, they distract during procedures and they teach, well, most all the time.
They help with homework, play board games, piece together puzzles and perform relaxation techniques.
They’ll bring in pets, sing, dance or start an impromptu parade if that’s what it takes to coax a smile.
They live in the moment, the magical moments—and bring childhood moments back to the patients.
If there’s something that can be done to make a child more comfortable, they do it.
The Child Life team has almost doubled in the past two years—from 20 to 39 staff members. The program also includes more than 200 volunteers.
“We’ve tried to grow and change with how our patient population has grown and changed,” Froh said. “We’re seeing more critically ill kids who aren’t able to get out of their room as often.”
Although the job is full of play, it can also be loaded with pain.
“A lot of people say, ‘You have the most fun job in the whole hospital,’” Froh said. “But we do still help with a lot of grief. We are the person who sometimes helps a parent tell a child his or her sibling has died.”
‘It makes life real again’
But the flip side is the totally flipping out moments of fun. Like after splatter painting.
Froh and Bailey invited three nurse practitioners into Ashley’s room to join them in a song Ashley picked out on her iPad—”Shake it Off” by Taylor Swift.
They snapped their surgical-gloved fingers to the music, danced, swayed and laughed unabashedly.
Ashley sang along.
“Where else can you see something like this?” Ashley’s mom asked, laughing. “This is awesome.”
Nurse practitioner Niki VandenBosch said she’s never performed during her shift before, but Ashley’s smile made the song come to life.
“I think it was pretty awesome,” VandenBosch said. “It gives them something to do when they’re stuck in a hospital. It makes life real again.”
‘They kind of made the disease go away’
Next, Froh and Bailey visited Keith Larsen’s room.
Froh demonstrated biofeedback relaxation techniques for the 13-year-old kidney transplant patient who named his new kidney ‘King Kevin’.
Soothing colors and bubbles flowed through the sensory machine as it projected animal images onto the bare room walls.
“That thing is really cool,” Keith said. “Wow, look at that, there’s a horse on the wall.”
Froh talked the boy through some relaxation techniques as he draped strands of light over his body. She used an iPad to monitor his heartbeat and breathing.
Keith’s mom, Suzi, said she’s impressed with the Child Life team.
“He’s been here on and off for eight months,” Suzi said. “They’ve helped with his school work and kept him entertained. In a way, they kind of made the disease go away for him. They don’t talk about the disease. They talk about what they can do to make it better.”