Child Life helps family bond while separated for months


By Kortney Scroger

Born at just 22 weeks, baby Harmony spent 157 days in MultiCare Tacoma General’s Level IV Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).

“Our experience at the NICU was a rollercoaster for sure,” say Harmony’s parents, Josh and Stephany Miller. “There were a lot of emotions. It’s not something we were expecting.”

Along with the challenge and stress of caring for a baby in the NICU, the Millers have two other children, CJ, 11, and Tony, 6 — who were unable to meet their sister for her first four months of life.

During flu season, visitors under the age of 14 cannot enter the NICU.

The NICU takes germs very seriously. Newborns have fragile immune systems and are vulnerable to illnesses. Even the common cold can be life-threatening. The NICU enforces strict precautions to limit the spread of germs, including the flu restrictions, a hand washing station and daily wellness screenings for visitors to ensure patient safety.

“It is really hard to explain to your children that they have a sister but they can’t see her,” Stephany says.

That’s when the family was introduced to Jill Whelan.

Whelan is one of seven Child Life Specialists who serve the entire hospital as part of the Mary Bridge Child Life Services team. The team’s goal is to minimize the stress and anxiety of children and their families —they do this through activities that encourage parents and siblings to be part of the health care team. 

Children are sensitive to stress and change to their daily routine. This is especially true of kids like CJ and Tony, whose new sister was hospitalized for an extended period.

Whelan created a sibling book to help establish a connection between the siblings. The book included weekly descriptions and photos of Harmony’s progress.

Harmony - 1.jpgCreating opportunities for siblings to bond fosters emotional attachment and helps children develop their identity within their family structure, Whelan explains. When siblings are not given enough opportunities to develop a relationship, it may be difficult for them to adjust to their new family dynamic.

“The book is our way of creating a relationship between siblings,” Whelan says. “Siblings who are not in the hospital struggle because they feel left out of the whole journey. My goal was to make sure CJ and Tony felt like they were part of their sister’s life.”

The brothers loved their book, Stephany says.

“It made them feel important and kept them feeling included in the new family excitement,” she says. “It answered all the questions they had.”

When the flu restrictions were lifted last spring, CJ and Tony were finally able to meet their sister.

“When the boys saw Harmony for the first time they were very excited,” Josh says. “CJ held her, but Tony was a bit nervous about the tubes and IVs.”

When Whelan heard about Tony’s reservations, she had a solution.

“Tony was struggling when visiting Harmony, so I made him a teddy bear with similar medical equipment as Harmony,” she says. “He loved the bear and it helped him understand Harmony’s situation a little better.”

Stephany is grateful for Whelan’s help.

“I feel like I have known Jill my whole life,” she says. “She has always been very compassionate with us, constantly checking in. She gives us advice on how to communicate with our boys, which has been very helpful.”

Josh agrees.

“Jill found a way to get our boys involved and interested in what’s happening with Harmony,” he explains.

For Child Life Specialists like Whelan, it’s all in a day’s work.

“I feel honored to meet families during some of the most stressful times of their lives,” she says. “It is a joy to provide support and alleviate their stressors.”

Harmony “graduated” (went home) from the NICU on June 12.

The family is thankful for the care they received. And they are enjoying every moment of being home — together.

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