‘You do whatever magic you can do’
They teach, play and sing. They distract, empathize and cry.
Child Life is staffed three shifts per day, 6 a.m. to midnight. Every day.
They play games with kids, giving parents much-needed breaks and time away from hospital rooms.
They try to bring a sense of normalcy to lives torn asunder by medical issues, through play, and diversion, and all things magical and wonderful in children’s lives.
Many call them angels. The ones with the wings broad enough to cast shadows over the monsters and dragons these diseases manifest in a child’s life. If they can’t achieve normalcy, at least they bring smiles.
This has to be a miracle in the works. How do so many good people end up in one place? There has to be something bigger happening here, you know what I mean?
To get a sense of what these Spectrum Health employees mean to children and families during a hospital stay, Health Beat spent an afternoon and evening beside them, visiting children’s bedsides.
Sarah Smith, Child Life educator, fills the role of teacher while kids are in the hospital. On this day, she’s with Arianna Rowland, 11, who has Down syndrome and suffers from acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Smith and Arianna read “The Very Funny Frog” together, as Smith asks the girl to count the spiders in the book (to work on her math skills).
Next, they play a cube game, again, a counting primer. Arianna picks purple cubes, her favorite color.
“Let’s think like mathematicians,” Smith says to Arianna.
They work on patterns with the cubes, purple, black, purple, black. Arianna smiles.
Since being diagnosed with leukemia in April, Arianna has missed all but one day of her regular school in Greenville, Michigan.
“The Child Life team is great,” said Arianna’s mom, Keri Bean. “You couldn’t ask for better people.”
Besides in-room school sessions, Smith hosts group school for an hour each day.
When children are in isolation, or too sick to attend, Smith and the Child Life team broadcast the elementary school lessons over the in-room televisions.
Smith enters the ninth-floor room of Josie Norman, 10, who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia last November.
Josie works through math flash cards as her mom, Laurie, looks on.
The numbers Josie calculates seem to add up to a greater sum for her mom.
“These people are a Godsend,” Laurie said. “This has to be a miracle in the works. How do so many good people end up in one place? There has to be something bigger happening here, you know what I mean?”
Child Life music specialist Bridget Sova enters the room of cancer patient Evelyn Schwartz, 14.
She brings with her an intern, Emma, a guitar and ukulele.
“Would you like to play the ukulele today?” Sova asks.
They promise Evelyn she’ll be able to play a song with only five minutes of instruction. Their promise holds true.
After showing Evelyn how to press down strings to make chords, she strums out “Just the Way You Are.” They all sing along.
“It’s awesome,” Evelyn said of her new musical skill. “They’re really good at teaching.”
Sova meets up with Arianna, and hands her a pink ukulele. Arianna isn’t thinking like a mathematician like she did earlier. She’s thinking like a musician.
The 11-year-old patient strums along, no chords needed, as they play and sing a tune from “Trolls.”
Next, Sova asks Arianna about some of her favorite things.
On the spot, they make up a silly song about Arianna liking the color red, hamsters and vanilla ice cream.
Next, they make up a song about Arianna’s mom.
Both mom and daughter smile. Their work here is done.
Ashley Diekema is the activities director of the many Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital playrooms.
She loves to play, and inspires patients to do the same.
On this day, the playroom is empty, but Diekema prepares for future play dates. She’s experimenting with a new Pinterest project—making egg shaker maracas—by putting beads inside plastic Easter eggs, then taping two plastic spoons to the egg for a handle. Kids can paint the masking tape whatever colors they wish, and even add stickers.
Diekema plans a craft every day, which patients can see on a monthly calendar—everything from drinking straw flutes to popsicle stick puppy dogs and tractors.
“A lot of kids don’t have any control over what’s happening to them,” Diekema said. “Here, they can pick their own colors, stickers and beads, which gives them control over something. Even if they’re only picking their own color of construction paper, it gives them control in an environment where they don’t have much control.”
Child Life specialist Ashley Kirvin meets with patient Cambri Jewell, 6, for a blood draw.
Her goal? To distract the child while the needle pierces her skin.
She helps the child pretend to draw blood from her stuffed animal, a bunny named Nini.
Cambri ties a blue elastic band around the stuffed friend’s arm, then pretends to place a play syringe in her vein.
“I can tell you’re going to do amazing today,” Kirvin tells her.
Cambri’s dad, Ben, shares that their middle son has decided he wants to become a Child Life specialist when he grows up, because of all he’s seen of Cambri’s experience.
It may be the biggest compliment that can be paid to the team.
The blood draw happens as Kirvin chats and distracts. It’s done and over before Cambri can cry.
On the seventh floor, Child Life’s Spencer Slaghuis examines the pieces of this job that may be the hardest to deal with. But also, sometimes, the most inevitable.
Not every child who enters the hospital leaves with a happy ending.
It’s there, in the deepest and darkest moment, that Slaghuis tries to help create all that is left from a child’s life—memories.
When a child is dying, Slaghuis makes himself available for whoever may need him—parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles. To talk, to reminisce, to read, to reflect.
Depending on what a family desires, Slaghuis can make three-dimensional impressions of a parent or sibling holding hands with the dying child, make a thumb impression into a necklace, make a hand or foot print of a baby or present a lock of hair in an eternal kind of way.
“This is a parent’s worst nightmare,” Slaghuis said. “But we’re trying to make something tangible and positive out of it. We want to give them something to hold onto as a memory of their child.”
Slaghuis never wants to overstep boundaries, but he wants to preserve moments if that’s what families desire.
He never wants to offer idle chatter, but he wants to talk, and console, if that’s what families need.
If a family doesn’t know how to explain to a sibling that a child is dying, Slaghuis will take a deep breath, and handle that, too.
In the case of a young life hanging in the balance unexpectedly, such as after a motor vehicle accident, Slaghuis will show the sibling photos of the walk into the room, so he or she becomes familiar with the many medical devices and machines the brother or sister may be hooked up to.
They may assign a small task to the sibling, such as bringing a teddy bear to the child patient.
It’s heart-wrenching. Soul-touching. Raw and real life.
“In this job, I can do this and in the next five minutes, we’re on to the next room celebrating a birthday,” Slaghuis said. “You do whatever magic you can do in between rooms to meet every family at their level.”
Kacie Kinstle, a psychology major at Grand Valley State University, is also a Child Life volunteer.
She never knew about Child Life until her volunteer work, and now, with her desire to work with children, she thinks it could be a great career match someday.
On this day, she works the sixth floor at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, visiting rooms and asking families if there’s anything they need, or anything she can do.
The family in room 601 would like some toys.
Kinstle walks to a cabinet and sorts through books and toys that would be appropriate for the 7- and 20-month olds in the room.
She heads to another room. Another toy request.
She picks out a butterfly coloring book for 2-year-old Zoe Vulgaris, who suffers from stomach issues.
“Does she like bubbles?” Kinstle asks Zoe’s dad, Anthony.
After an affirmative answer, Kinstle blows bubbles toward the toddler, who tries to catch them mid-air.
“Do you want to blow?” Kinstle asks, turning the bubble wand over to Zoe.
Dogs gather in the dining area at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
Their owners at the other end of the leash are volunteers with West Michigan Therapy Dogs, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing canines in for visits to cheer children who are hospitalized.
The dogs wear hospital ID cards. Just like their owners.
Pablos Bergas, 8, eagerly waits for a visit in room 612.
Sassy, a cute white pup, enters and hops up on his bed.
“Sassy’s job is to make you smile,” said Cindy Martindale, Sassy’s owner. “It looks like she did her job.”
Martindale handed a postcard featuring photos of Sassy to Pablos.
Next, Sunshine, a 13-year-old golden retriever, visits 2-year-old Zoe.
Zoe can’t have pets in her room, so instead, Sunshine peers at the pint-sized patient through the glass of her room.
Zoe raises her tiny hand to the glass. Sunshine places her paw on the same spot on the glass, mirroring Zoe’s touch.
The little girl’s grin grows from smile to glowing elation.
Russ Hoekstra, Child Life manager, stands in the background. A smile slides across his face, too.
“We simply love how the therapy dogs can work their magic to help make an unbearable situation a little more bearable,” Hoekstra said.
It echoes the mission of the 40 Child Life staff members, whether they’re dealing Uno cards, singing silly songs, or painting a colorful project.
“It allows the hours to tick by a little faster for these children, knowing there’s something to look forward to,” Hoekstra said.
Child Life is fully funded through generous donations. If you are interested in supporting this life-changing program and the children this team helps, call the foundation at 616.391.2000 or donate at give.spectrumhealth.org/donation.