Child Life Specialists help Mary Bridge patient feel ‘proud’ after every appointment

By Kortney Scroger

A hospital or medical clinic can be a scary place for anyone, especially a child. For 9-year-old Liam Parnell, check-ups, blood draws and medical tests have always been a regular part of his life.

Liam was first seen at the Mary Bridge Children’s Emergency Department when he was almost a year old. Shortly after being admitted, he was diagnosed with epilepsy. His care team estimated he was having upwards of 40 seizures a day.

While Liam has been seizure-free for three years, he continues to receive support services related to autism and Tourette’s syndrome. Like many kids on the autism spectrum, he experiences anxiety, attention deficit disorder (ADD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and sensory processing challenges that affect his development, learning, communication and mental health.

“Having a highly engaged care teams like the ones at Mary Bridge are vital to managing Liam’s health,” Liam’s mom, Bev Parnell says.

According Bev, Liam’s a “frequent flyer” of Mary Bridge spending 10-12 hours per month engaged with his various care teams from psychology to occupational therapy to endocrinology. Liam leaves every visit with a sense of accomplishment and comfort, thanks to his team of Child Life Specialists whose work is made possible thanks to donor giving.

Liam with Child Life Crew“All along our journey, Mary Bridge and the Child Life team have been there to meet us wherever we are for whatever we’ve been facing,” Liam’s mom, Bev, says. “Child Life is not just a brave face or a Band-Aid. It gives us tools and support. We can show up and have extenders that transform the whole experience. Every single time, visiting with a Child Life Specialist has made things better for Liam.”

The Child Life Services department was created to minimize stress and anxiety for children in a medical setting. They do this through medical play, giving children choices where choices are possible and narrating the care they receive.

For Child Life Specialist Jesse Bartlett, this means helping patients achieve their goals at every medical visit.

"Our job is to figure out what is causing stress for a patient, and then help them to come up with a plan to cope with this stress so they can overcome some of those challenges,” Jesse says. “The first time I met Liam, that meant talking about one of his interests Pokémon and keeping him engaged in that conversation and doing things that he needed to do in order to make the appointment successful for him.”

For kids like Liam, this unique and specialized type of care is essential to helping him get through the medical requirements of his appointments with minimal stress and fear. Liam is most successful when his care team uses social stories and fact-based language. He also prefers quieter rooms and softer lighting.

“Liam is wired to take the world in with a lot more sensitivity,” Bev says. “I think there’s a good chance with repeated exposure, even with the best of intent, these visits would be spiritually, psychologically and/or physically traumatic without Child Life.”

You’ll hear it from everyone you encounter at Mary Bridge -- kids are resilient. But for those kids who are repeatedly exposed to “poking and prodding,” Child Life is there to partner with them. They learn how to cope and to be proud of their bravery.

Liam with Olaf“The work we do is not essential for kids to survive,” Jesse says. “We're not part of the medical team that's giving lifesaving care, but we are there to help kids deal with what's going on in here, and make sure that they're having the least traumatic experience that they can. The hospital can be a scary place. Our job is to empower kids to make decisions for themselves, advocate for themselves, and to be proud of themselves for the things that they have to go through.”

“I definitely see Child Life as family-centered support,” Bev says. “I think it’s true for any parent whose child receives a lot of medical care when we can see that our child’s feeling well taken care of, we breathe a lot easier.”

The impact Mary Bridge has had on the Parnell family is significant. It inspired Bev to pursue a career at MultiCare for seven years and to volunteer for various roles with Mary Bridge Children’s Festival of Trees, including her most recent position as Trees Group Chair.

“For me, it’s important to give back because of Liam,” Bev says. “So much has been given to him and to us.”

Giving back is what “Mary Bridge is all about” according to Bev.

“I think the community support and the sense of community is the heart of what Mary Bridge is all about,” Bev says. “In our experience with Liam, it’s never just one appointment. It’s never just one Child Life Specialist. When we can walk out of Mary Bridge and Liam has his head held high and you can tell that he feels proud that’s huge. Especially for families that have kiddos that have a lot thrown at them, sometimes you just need a win.”

Support kids like Liam

You can support high-quality, compassionate care for families like the Parnell's by making a gift to the Child Life Services team

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