Advancing Children's Health

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Career Day: Child Life Specialists

Published by , on Mar 31, 2014

A CHoR child life specialist enjoys a game with a patient

A CHoR child life specialist enjoys a game with a patient

While many young children dream of becoming doctors, lawyers, ballerinas and astronauts, those who encounter people like Heather Kinney, CCLS, CPST during their stay in the hospital often develop heroes of a different kind. During March, we celebrate heroes like Heather, a senior child life specialist at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU (CHoR) who spends her time helping children and their families cope with the different health challenges and experiences they’re facing. Her passion for children and inspiring dedication is the reason many of her patients have decided they want to grow up and be a child life specialist just like Heather.Heather’s own desire to become a child life specialist developed in high school when her youth group worked at a summer camp for kids with cancer. As a counselor, Heather had the opportunity to meet a child life specialist, and the interactions she witnessed between the specialist and the children opened her eyes and her heart to this career path.In 1997, Heather graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a bachelor’s degree in human development and family studies with an emphasis in child life. A bachelor’s degree is a common way to enter the field as is a master’s degree in child life or a related field like child development. After earning a degree, all graduates are required to complete a child life internship in order to be eligible for the certification exam. Once an individual successfully passes the exam he or she officially earns the title of Certified Child Life Specialist; known to many as simply heroes.A day in the life of a certified child life specialist can take many forms. Some days are full of fun, playing with kids, allowing them to continue being kids within the medical environment, and helping them use play to normalize the hospital or clinic experience. Other times, the focus is more medical, helping children to understand, cope with and participate in their treatments, medications, procedures and surgeries. Child life specialists provide psychosocial care for children as they face these challenges, collaborating with the child’s family and other members of the care team to reduce fear and stress and make the child feel empowered and included in the process.These responsibilities require a special kind of person; one that enjoys interacting with new people and is flexible, creative and passionate about advocating for children. A love of working with children is a must; however there are times when much of the work is not directly with children, but rather their families or the staff providing their medical care.“Being able to clearly express your ideas and explain what you believe to be in the child’s best interest and why, are critical skills for success in this field,” said Heather. “In addition, it’s important to have a sense of humor and be patient, open minded and a good problem solver.”Heather says her favorite part of the job is being an advocate for children and helping adults learn to explain difficult situations to their children.“Preparing children to visit a hospitalized and potentially very sick family member, whether it’s sibling, parent or grandparent, is often when I feel like I have truly made a lasting difference.”VCU Medical Center’s Helping Children of Adult Patients (HCAP) program, allows child life specialists to work with other staff to do just that; providing the support and education children often need in order to understand and process a family member’s illness.“The hardest part is witnessing extreme suffering,” says Heather. “When there isn’t much we can do or I don’t feel like I’ve done enough to help alleviate suffering, those are the toughest days.”Though the job can be tough, Heather loves what she does and can’t imagine doing anything else. And, her love of the job is evident in her interactions with the children. Just like the child life specialist that Heather observed at the summer camp, many who watch her work are inspired by the care she provides, hoping to one day have the same impact on the lives of children.If you are interested in becoming a child life specialist, visit childlife.org for more information on the profession.

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