By: Huriyah Malik
What if you needed a new heart?
A heart transplant is difficult work. The surgeon has to carefully replace your most vital organ while your life hangs in the balance. However, this delicate surgery is only four hours of the months-long process of a heart transplant.
You’d be worried, of course. Scared out of your mind. You’d see a psychologist; talk to your friends. But you’re an adult, who’s had time to come to terms with your own mortality.
What if this happened when you were a child?
Carlie doesn’t have to wonder.
After her kidney transplant earlier that year, she spent several months waiting for a suitable heart transplant to become available. While her physicians cared for her physicals needs, child life specialist cared for her emotional needs in helping her prepare her for her heart transplant. Her specialists made sure to keep Carlie busy despite her situation. She loved playing board games with the specialists and making colorful art pieces to channel her energy with creative activities.
Although she was happy, Carlie desperately missed her friends. To reconnect her with her classmates, the specialists held a Skype session between Carlie and her friends. Carlie was delighted to see her classmates. Even though she loved her Skype sessions, she still wished she could be there with them. With the help of her specialists Carlie’s wish came true; together they created a life sized poster of Carlie to display in her classroom while she was gone. In this way, her classmates and friends would always keep Carlie in their minds.
As the days got closer to the day of the transplant, Carlie began to feel more and more anxious. The specialists were always right by her side. They explained what would happen during the surgery in age-appropriate terms.
In order to help Carlie remain calm and make the transplant look less scary, child specialist Michelle gave her a special “heart stone”. The special heart stone was a reminder to Carlie that soon she will have a heart as strong as the stone. On the day of the surgery, the heart stone was the only item Carlie could bring with her and she tightly held on to the stone during the procedure.
When Carlie woke, she could feel her fresh new heart beating and the weight of the heart stone in her hand. After the surgery, the specialists were there for Carlie to help her have a speedy recovery.
Child life specialists are crucial in minimizing the trauma caused by a hospital stay. They address the emotional needs of both the child and the family, resulting in a positive outcome and speedy recovery for the patient. For instance, Jakie O ‘Hara, a mother of a child diagnosed with leukemia, says, “ Medical terminology is a different language altogether and it’s scary”, O’ Hara explains. The child specialists are “able to take the scariness out of it.”
The primary goal of child life specialists is to care for the psychosocial needs of children by reducing their stress and anxiety. Since the children are facing extreme and traumatic situations it can potentially leave a lasting imprint in their minds. Their experiences can lead to emotional and behavioral problems. Therefore, it is critical for the child to “process” their situation by expressing themselves in a constructive manner.
Play therapy is the principle strategy used by child specialists to help relax the children. Children can best express themselves symbolically by playing games and toys instead of having to talk about their situation in order to feel better. The specialist can play with child in ways that helps them make sense of their problem.
Play therapy enables children to process a difficult experience since it activates a child’s innate self-healing abilities since then children can devote more of their mental energy to creative activities. It essentially enables child to cope with their situation by expressing themselves in a more healthy way and develop a better understanding of what is happening in their lives.
By having a support system to prepare her for the transplant, Carlie was able to feel more relaxed going into the surgery. If Carlie did not have the benefit of child specialists she probably would not be in the same emotional state. Difficult experiences such as the one Carlie had could have put her in a distressed state, which over time could lead to chronic stress. Long-term stress results in elevated levels of cortisol; therefore, decreasing the body’s immune system and allowing the body more vulnerable to diseases.
The child specialists made Carlie feel secure and happy, which will help her handle the long-term stress accompanied with these kind of events. Carlie has now since been discharged and lives with her family now. She can now replace the life-sized cutout of herself in the classroom, and most importantly, she has a heart as strong as stone.