Child Life Series: Red Cross Treatment Room Gets a New Look Thanks to Child Life!

By Danielle Surprenant

In celebration of the US nationally recognized Child Life Month, myself and Caroline (my predecessor) along with oncology unit child life volunteer, Lisa, painted the treatment room on the burn unit at Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town. The mural includes a 6 foot giraffe, a giant elephant whose trunk became the base of the shower head, life size monkeys, waddling penguins, and a herd of various animals frolicking at a waterhole at the base of Table Mountain.

The first evening was spent sketching designs in pencil. On the second evening the painting commenced! The staff (and a few wandering children) remarked at the work and intermittently stopped to watch. Having both oil and water based paints, it quickly became clear that oil paints are a massive chore. They ruin everything they touch! By the end of the night we were down to only 3 operating brushes and had stained nearly everything in sight. We tackled our damage with alcohol disinfectant. It worked wonderfully but only if you used a lot and scrubbed really really hard. We left with headaches from the combination of paint fumes and alcohol, blackened hands from the oil paints, sore muscles from the reaching, climbing, and scrubbing and proud smiles from the progress of our work.

On the third evening we were determined to finish and worked well into the evening. We approached the oil paints with proactive caution. We separated the remaining brushes between oil and water base use, covered everything in sight, and donned gowns and gloves for protection. We were well practised painters now!

The new look had an immediate positive impact. A 10 year-old boy who has been on the burn unit for months and in the late stages of recovery became particularly intrigued by our work. This patient has a history of presenting with incredible anxiety at even a mention of the treatment room. On the second night we worked the patient remained in the doorway. On the third night he began to explore the empty treatment room with caution, but visible curiosity. After a few minutes, he began reaching out to touch things. Caroline and I exchanged glances but continued with our own tasks and allowed him to explore at his own pace.

The patient became particularly intrigued by the shower head. I watched him stare at it for a while before I reached over and gave the handle a squeeze. Water rushed out onto the treatment table. Even though the boy was initially startled, he let out a giggle and I saw a hint of mischief in his eyes. I handed him the nozzle and he delighted in squirting the treatment table. The shower is one of the most feared objects by the children in the treatment room. This was certainly the case for this boy. Thus, watching him delight in the object and appear so comfortable in this environment was a touching event to witness.

The treatment room, now quiet and empty of nurses, visible bandages, ointments and creams had transformed into a fun environment where he was given independence. Once he had satisfied his curiosity, he became a captive audience sitting quietly and watching us paint, gesturing to us only every few minutes to get him some water or a snack or adjust his seated position. Our mural had proven to be therapeutic not only for treatments during day, but in the absence of all that chaos as well.

Danielle Surprenant, a qualified and experienced Child Life specialist, served as Connect-123’s Child Life Program Director at Red Cross Children’s Hospital in 2010. She has since returned to the US, where she works at an Early Intervention Center in Massachusetts.

Danielle Surprenant


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