By Alli Marler, CCLS
When I turned 3 years old, I suddenly developed excruciating stomach pain. The pain would come in waves—48 hours at a time, at least once a month. We would pile in the car and head to the hospital, where the doctors would run what felt like days of tests at a time. Sometimes, I had to drink a strange “milkshake,” which I later learned was a medical contrast that would allow doctors to see what was happening in my stomach. Other times, they had to take X-rays, and I didn’t know why. I was young, and it was all confusing.
Eventually, I was diagnosed with cyclical vomiting syndrome, a relatively rare stomach disorder. It’s like a migraine, but the focal point is in the stomach instead of the head. Cyclical vomiting syndrome is diagnosed by ruling out other conditions, meaning my doctors had to complete many tests and procedures. Ironically, this made me more stressed and anxious, which are both feelings known to trigger episodes. As a young adult, I knew I wanted a career that would allow me to help children facing similar challenges and fears. When I learned about the field of child life, I knew it was a perfect fit.
Taking the edge off of the unknown
As a child life specialist at Children’s National Health System, my job is to help patients understand any upcoming procedures and provide emotional and psychological support before, during and after treatment. Many of the fears children express are caused by the unknown: unknown terminology, unclear understanding of what’s going to happen next and uneasiness about upcoming procedures. That’s where we come in.
For example, much of what children know about a hospital is from what they’ve seen on TV. There are machines, masks, gowns, needles and other things that can all seem scary. Patients might hear that the doctors are going to “open them up and take a peek inside.” But depending on the age of the patients and their understanding, they might envision the doctors literally sticking their heads inside their belly, which isn’t the case. Many patients also are apprehensive about treatment that involves using tubes to connect them to IVs or other medical equipment. My job is to find creative solutions to explain these procedures in a way that makes them more concrete and easy to understand. Oftentimes, I use a toy doll or stuffed animal to show patients and their siblings what the treatment will look like.
Although the Child Life program began at Children’s National in 1972, many families who arrive at the hospital are unaware of and unfamiliar with the services we provide. We have degrees in fields like child development, psychology and early childhood education. In addition to our education, child life specialists complete volunteer hours and clinical training before being eligible for certification. All child life specialists must be certified by the Association of Child Life Professionals.
You can do it!
One of my favorite parts of child life is helping kids accomplish difficult goals and seeing their victory faces when the task is complete.
Learning how to swallow medications is one of those tough tasks that our patients often have to overcome. We foster an “I can do it” attitude and make sure patients feel confident. Sometimes, that means getting creative. For example, to teach older children how to swallow medications, we use our special sprinkle kit. The kit uses six progressively larger candies that are about the size of medications—ranging from tiny sprinkles to larger gummies—to help them practice and gain confidence. While it can take time, the joy and satisfaction that fill the room when they accomplish their goals is amazing.
Celebrating milestone moments, even in the hospital
No one ever wants to be in the hospital and especially not during holidays and big milestones. One of my favorite responsibilities is working with other members of the care team to make sure each child who has a birthday while in the hospital has a special celebration. This includes items such as a birthday cake, decorations, gifts and a care team rendition of the “Happy Birthday” song. The Child Life team also works with other departments throughout the year to celebrate holidays and make sure our patients have fun and can still be kids while in the hospital.
Alli Marler, CCLS, is a Certified Child Life Specialist at Children’s National Health System. A native of Salt Lake City, Utah, Alli has lived in Northern Virginia for two years. Alli has worked at Children’s National Health System as a Child Life Specialist since March 2016. In her free time she enjoys hiking with her husband and puppy, Oakley.