Child Life Program Update

By Lea Levy

Since May 2008, great strides have been made in the effort to pilot child life services at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital (RCCH) in Cape Town, South Africa.  Caroline Hargrave, Child Life Program Director appointed through Connect-123, has been at RCCH since February 2009 leading the pilot program.

Additionally, four child life specialists have also joined the team over the past three months to provide beneficial interventions for children and their caregivers treated at RCCH.  Child Life Specialists (CLS) help minimize potentially detrimental effects of hospitalization on children and their caregivers and maximize their optimum cognitive, physical, emotional, and social development.  With an emphasis on play and self expression activities, CLS provide developmentally appropriate procedural explanations to help children of all ages understand what to expect in the hospital.

Procedural support is also a crucial element of the field when children can put to use techniques they have practiced with a CLS to help them effectively cope with and manage discomfort. Following the Pilot Child Life Program’s launch in February 2009, these interventions have taken place largely on the Burn Rehabilitation ward at RCCH.

The team provides children with procedural education for operations, support during painful dressing changes, and the opportunity to play, laugh, and adapt in the hospital setting.  Many of the children are long-term patients who must have repeated procedures and therefore benefit from an increased sense of control to enhance their ability to cope.  Already there has been encouraging feedback from patients and caregivers with whom we have worked closely.

The following is a small sample:

“It takes her mind off the pain and motivates her to get better.”
Grandmother of a four-year-old burn survivor.

“She made me laugh and happy. She did fun things with me.”
Twelve-year-old burn survivor

Even if my child is going to dressing, they are there for her.  Even when she is going to theatre, they are there holding her hands.  They did not do this for my child only but for the whole burn’s unit.  They play with our children and take their minds off pain.”
Mother of an eleven-year-old burn survivor

Collaborating with professionals including doctors, surgeons, anesthesiologists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, and nursing staff at RCCH has truly made this program a multidisciplinary effort.  Without their support and continued enthusiasm regarding child life services, this program would not have been possible.  Here is just a small sample of some of the amazing feedback the child life team has received from colleagues at the hospital:

“A happy child heals faster. I am sure this has reduced pts hospital time and allowed us to open beds for more patients…. I can see the huge impact that they have had and would love to include them in our team on a permanent basis!”

S. Warren, Professional Nurse

“I definitely saw a big difference in the children and heir families when the CLS worked with them – they were less confused, less anxious, more compliant with treatment and generally the ward atmosphere improved with all staff being more attentive and aware of the children’s mood.”
J. Kuum, OT

“It helps to know that there is a child life specialist available to talk to the child, parents to help ease their fears or just hold their hands and provide comfort”
M. Miller, Professional Nurse

As feedback has been incredibly encouraging both from those treated at RCCH and those who work there, the next phase of the program development will involve efforts to ensure the sustainability of these services. International child life volunteers contributing their time, enthusiasm, and skills is essential to continue positively impacting the children and staff at RCCH! Child Life Specialists who are interested in learning more about this amazing opportunity to profoundly impact the lives of deserving children are invited to contact us with enquiries.

Lea Levy


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