It’s 10 a.m. on a Wednesday.
The kids throughout Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital pick up their remotes and tune the televisions to Channel 12 for “The Morning Buzz,” the daily program produced by the Child and Family Life team for the hospital’s in-house station, Blue Glass Studio.
From bedside consults and preparation for difficult surgeries and procedures to virtual BINGO games and music therapy sessions, the team makes hospital stays much more comfortable for patients and their families.
On deck: Word Scramble Wednesday.
Young patients across the hospital readied to call in with their best guesses.
The scramble: “Huh I Ew Toes.”
The category: landmarks.
“Think presidents. And where they live,” Child Life specialist Molly Gering said, playing at the bedside with Keegan Ryan, 13, who recently had his appendix removed.
“White House,” Keegan said, grabbing the phone to call in the answer.
He was on a roll, having answered the last three word scrambles correctly.
“I think Keegan has the entire fifth floor helping him out,” Child Life specialist Rhys Vandemark said.
They moved on to the next scrambles: Great Wall of China, Golden Gate Bridge and Mount Rushmore.
The morning show is just a small slice of what the Child and Family Life team is responsible for each day.
“I had never heard of Child Life before coming to this hospital,” Heidi Ryan, Keegan’s mom, said. “We were waiting for surgery and they came into the room with Legos and some other games. We were nervous and didn’t know what to expect.”
The Child and Family Life team members answered all their questions and helped ease some of their anxiety by explaining there was no chance of waking up during the surgery, Heidi said. It was one of Keegan’s main concerns.
Pre-surgical visits from this team help children understand what to expect and what comes next.
“I learned what anesthesiologists are,” Keegan said. “Sleep doctors!”
Meanwhile, at the 10th floor infusion clinic, Ava Weis, 10, of Spring Lake, underwent treatment for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
She jammed out on a guitar at the same time.
The Edward and June Prein Family Music Therapy Program is another tool the Child and Family Life team has in their kit.
Music therapist Katie Rushlow visits kids all around the children’s hospital, taking with her a variety of musical instruments to help offer distractions—and spread smiles.
“When we are here waiting … music makes it more fun,” Ava said. “It makes the time go faster and helps me out when I’m not feeling so good. Playing music makes it feel like I’m not here, like I’m somewhere else.”
Ava had guitar lessons years ago, but her health journey has made it challenging to find the time. Her older sister is obsessed with Adelle, so Katie and Ava have been working on playing some of her songs.
Ava’s mom, Jennifer Weis, said Child and Family Life proved helpful when Ava’s hair first started coming out.
“They were so positive with Ava about options and wearing a hat,” she said. “They helped normalize it for her. We are really thankful for them.”
Ava had dyed her hair blue just before it started coming out. After learning birds use hair in nests, she started tossing the discarded hair out her bedroom window, and it became more of a joyful moment.
“I can’t wait until spring when our neighborhood will be full of blue bird nests,” she said.
By 10:45 a.m., the outpatient dialysis clinic became a hub of activity, with children flocking to the Dick and Linda Antonini Hospital School Program, “WIZKIDS.”
The show is broadcast live on Channel 12 to all hospital rooms, lead by teachers Sarah Smith and Brian Craigh.
The day’s challenge: states and capitals. The week’s theme: America the beautiful.
And competition proved fierce.
Several kids played from their seats as they called in answers on the live line.
Children’s hospital teacher Dede Mills bopped from chair to chair, just as any teacher would in the classroom.
“The WIZKIDS program is a wonderful way to use learning to help kids engage their brains while having some fun at the same time,” Mills said.
She also took time to work with a few patients on the schoolwork they’d brought in from their home schools. It’s her job to keep them on track.
“This program is a wonderful way to use learning to help kids stay busy and entertained,” she said.
She often uses games during the WIZKIDS lessons and encourages patients to call in and participate. There’s usually a craft program, too, with her team providing materials for patients to make crafts in their rooms as they follow along on the TV.
“Parents love the WIZKIDS program, as it provides a fun distraction for the kids and just gives a bit of normalcy as part of their time in the hospital,” Mills said. “We hear things like, ‘He had so much fun,’ or, ‘She loved making the penguin,’ all the time.”
‘They are pretty wonderful’
The Child and Family Life team cares for some of the hospital’s smallest patients, too.
In the Gerber Foundation Neonatal Center, Child Life specialists Theresa Hartl and Sarah Steenland work with families to help them adjust to the medical environment and offer them creative ways to bond with their baby.
They also work to encourage parent and caregiver participation in their baby’s health journey.
The team helps comfort families during stressful times. They also help siblings who might have trouble understanding why their new baby brother or sister isn’t home yet.
“With siblings not being able to come to the hospital to visit right now, we send things home to help them feel connected and know they are a very important part of their new baby’s life,” Hartl said. “We create a baby doll bag with a NICU bottle, preemie diaper and pacifier to allow siblings to play and explore how to take care of a baby in the hospital.”
Hartl said siblings always want to get their hands on the new babies, and being able to see and touch a doll with a feeding tube or CPAP helps manage expectations.
The team is there for the little ones when caregivers can’t be on hand too.
There are many barriers to caregivers being able to be in the NICU, Hartl said. Some parents have to travel a distance from home, while others have to balance work schedules and caring for their other children at home.
“We try to fill in as needed as best we can to make sure babies are supported when caregivers can’t be here,” she said.
When a new baby comes to the NICU, families are adjusting and welcoming a new member of their family, Hartl said.
“We really get to know these babies and their families,” she said. “We call it family-centered care—focusing on the entire family and their needs. Family is what is central to these babies.”
Child Life specialists are so much more than play and having fun, said Amy Davis, manager of the Child and Family Life team.
They work hard to minimize stress and fear, provide education prior to procedures and support kids during tough times in the hospital.
“In the hospital, our primary roles are to provide education, preparation, distraction and coping support through difficult procedures or tests,” Davis said. “We love these kids as if they were our own.”