Any time Carolyn Brown dropped off her 5-year-old son, Jack, for school, a playdate or swimming lessons, they had a special ritual.
"Jack is a very thoughtful child, and we have a very strong connection. Any time we were going to be apart, even for a short period of time, I would pinkie promise him that I would come back … that mommy always comes back."
Then in summer 2016, Carolyn received the overwhelming diagnosis that she had stage 3 breast cancer, and she knew a pinkie promise wasn't going to be all the explanation that Jack needed as she and her husband, Steve, began to navigate her medical journey.
"It was a lot of information for us to process, and we had no idea how to even begin telling Jack what was going on," said Carolyn, "but we knew this was important, and didn't want to mess this up."
She was right. Separation from a parent due to serious illness or death can have a major negative impact on a child throughout the child's life and is well-documented in research literature. Experts believe that child life services can lessen both short and long-term negative effects.
Traditionally, child life specialists are found in pediatric hospitals – supporting children who are undergoing medical treatment. However, very few adult acute care hospitals serve the emotional needs of children whose parent or loved one is experiencing a health crisis.
But this is exactly what we do here at Baylor Scott & White Health. And thanks to generous donors like the G.R. White Trust, we are able to offer this service to patients free of charge.
Our child life team is wholly dedicated to serving children of our adult patients. Across the hospital, from the emergency department to the ICU, they are trained to help with the psychosocial issues kids face when their parent or loved one is seriously ill or injured.
They facilitate interventions to help children aged 3–18 better understand what's going on through therapeutic play, books and activities. While their interventions often look like arts and crafts, they all have a therapeutic basis and are age and developmentally appropriate.
For example, child life specialists help parents openly and honestly explain a serious diagnosis to their kids. They then work to develop coping strategies and help children prepare for hospital visits, treatments and changes in mom or dad's appearance and physical abilities.
Luckily for the Brown family, they had Cinda McDonald, manager of Child Life Services, to guide them through this difficult time.
Since Carolyn's diagnosis, Cinda has spent a lot of time with Jack. Over the past eight months, they have worked though his questions, concerns and worries. And she's also been able to offer guidance and support to Carolyn and Steve.
"The Browns are amazing parents, and parents always know their children better than anyone. However, they usually don't know how to talk to their kids — like Jack — about mommy's breast cancer and how to answer all the questions that he might have throughout the journey," said Cinda. "And we tell them that's okay. They're not supposed to know how. That's our job."
One of the first questions parents ask is, "How much is this service going to cost?" Parents are so relieved when told that this service is completely free of charge. Child life services are not billable and are not covered by insurance. This program exists because it is fully funded by philanthropy.
For Carolyn and Steve, Cinda's role in this process was priceless.
"The peace of mind that I have and the confidence that I have in Cinda in the way she communicates with Jack puts me at ease. I know it has really helped him," said Steve.
Carolyn added, "When you're trying to cope and deal with all this, it's very difficult to understand from a 5-year-old's perspective. To have someone on your team who can help you walk through this very difficult time, is absolutely invaluable."
At this time, generous philanthropic support is in place to sustain salaries for two palliative care child life specialists at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas through June 30, 2018. However, philanthropic funding is needed to continue to fund these two positions and add a third child life specialist to the team. This is a vital service to families and their children. Without philanthropic support, this program will not exist.
For more information on how you can support child life specialists, contact Melissa Dalton at 214.820.2705 or Melissa.Dalton@BSWHealth.org.
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