Published on May 31, 2022

Child life specialists help littlest patients cope in stressful situations

A visit to the hospital can be a scary and overwhelming experience for a child. That’s why Essentia Health-Fargo has several child life specialists on staff who use age-appropriate strategies to help reduce a child’s anxiety, fear and pain during medical visits.

For one Fargo mom and her daughter, their time spent with Essentia Health child life specialist Michelle Finneman made a world of difference during a recent trip to the hospital.

Betsy Bladow brought her 4-year-old daughter, Eleanor, into the emergency room back in February when Eleanor’s eye swelled shut. Her care team determined that Eleanor had orbital cellulitis, an infection of the skin and tissues around the eye. At first, they tried oral antibiotics to see if that might help, but she only got sicker, eventually coming down with a fever. Instead, she needed an IV with antibiotics to heal.

Naturally, Eleanor was apprehensive about being poked by a needle. That’s where Finneman came in.

Betsy had already known the positive impact that child life specialists had on younger patients because of an earlier experience she and her son had with one in a Twin Cities hospital. As a registered nurse at Essentia herself, Betsy recalled, “I just remember being so happy when I first learned that Essentia was hiring child life specialists.” This sentiment was further reinforced after their time with Finneman.

Finneman came to Eleanor’s room equipped with a video explaining her upcoming procedure and two dolls, one of which they named Cassie after Eleanor’s favorite daycare provider. Finneman then told Eleanor that Cassie the doll also needed an IV to get medicine that would make her feel better. As Finneman explained the process to Eleanor, she avoided words like “poke” to make the explanation less scary.

Eleanor felt at ease with Finneman and responded well to her techniques, but the IV process was still difficult because Eleanor’s veins were small and hard to find. Finneman stayed by Eleanor’s side the entire time, long after her shift had ended. Her dedication to Eleanor was “just incredible,” Betsy said.

The next day, Finneman returned to Eleanor’s room with more games and crafts to keep her mind off the medical setting. Betsy describes Finneman as sweet and caring, detailing how she had even brought fake, stick-on tattoos for Eleanor to play with because she had noticed that Eleanor already was wearing one from a birthday party she had attended earlier that week.

“It was like having another mother in the room,” Betsy said. “I am incredibly grateful for her help during this stressful time.”

Learn more about our child life specialists

Our child life specialists are professionals trained in child development and psychology. They’re certified by the Association of Child Life Professionals to provide support to infants, children, youth and families in a medical setting.

Essentia’s Finneman says, “It's such a privilege to be able to help make a positive impact on a child and their family, especially when they're feeling vulnerable and scared. The work of a child life specialist can be so powerful in helping kids overcome theirs fears and anxieties, but also in helping kids feel seen and heard. I couldn't imagine doing anything else!”

Child life specialists help ease stress among young patients and their families by providing:

  • Emotional support.
  • Education about diagnosis.
  • Preparation and distraction during procedures.
  • Medical play to help children understand their medical experience.
  • Celebration of special events in the hospital.
  • Sibling support.
  • End-of-life support for patients and families.
  • Memory-making to honor a child’s medical journey.
  • Alternative pain management during procedures.
  • Play that helps build coping skills and supports child development.
  • Pre-op tours to familiarize a child with the medical environment.
  • Ways to reduce sedations, so patients can complete scans without anesthesia.
  • Education on comfort positioning during IV placement, immunizations, stiches, etc.
  • Help for children, youth and families to understand and cope with the medical environment.