Bringing Smiles To The Smallest Patients

The SBMC Child Life team: Standing, from left, Beth Smalley, MA, ATR-BC, LCAT, Art Therapist; Melissa Santiago, MS, MT-BC, CCLS, Music Therapist; Bonnie Sacks, RN, BSN, MAS, Clinical Director of Pediatrics and Manager, Child Life and Creative Arts Department; Laura Cunius, MS, CCLS, Child Life Specialist. Seated, from left: Deborah Rizzo, MA, MT-BC, Music Therapist; Caitlin Ridge, BA, CCLS, Child Life Specialist; and Kellie Saracino, BA, CCLS, Child Life Specialist.

The Child Life Team uses a range of therapeutic tools to help children undergoing medical treatment.

“Sometimes when people hear about the Child Life team, they think we just play with children. Our work goes far beyond that,” says Bonnie Sacks, RN, BSN, MAS, Clinical Director of Pediatrics and Child Life Manager at Saint Barnabas Medical Center (SBMC).

One of only a few programs in the state to include full-time art and music therapists and Child Life specialists, the Child Life and Creative Arts Department at SBMC provides a therapeutic component for pediatric and adult patients, their family members and a large special-needs population.

The team has six staff members—three Child Life specialists, two music therapists and an art therapist. They work in the Pediatric Inpatient Unit, Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, Burn Center, Emergency Department, Radiology, Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and more. Here, they share just some of what their work entails.

LAURA CUNIUS, Certified Child Life Specialist: “Early in the morning, I meet pediatric patients and their families in Same Day Surgery. They’ve already seen the doctor and nurses, so they know what will happen medically, but my role is to talk about all the other things that happen during the day that are just as important to the child. Where are they going to go, and what will they see and feel in the OR? How and why will they fall asleep, and where will they wake up?

The rest of the day, I see pediatric patients throughout the hospital. We focus on how the child is understanding the whole experience of being in a hospital—all the people, the sounds, the smells, the equipment. We break it down and explain it at their own developmental level.

There’s little control for a patient in the hospital when they have to take medicine or have a procedure. We try to give the child some control. It can be as simple as, ‘Do you want the shot in your left arm or right arm? Do you want to sit on Mom’s lap or sit by yourself?’”

MELISSA SANTIAGO, Board Certified Music Therapist: “Our body has rhythm within it naturally—in our heartbeat, in our breathing. Also, the brain processes music in a different area than speech. That’s one reason music can connect with people in a way that conversation doesn’t.

Frequently, the goal of music therapy is relaxation. What’s going to help this patient? They can take deep breaths to ground themselves or direct their focus away from the pain toward the music.

If the patient is hooked up to a monitor, I can match the music’s tempo to their actual heart rate. I will slow the tempo to reduce the patient’s heart rate if that’s the goal. I can do the same thing with a patient’s breathing rate. I do this in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit with preemies as well.

Music also offers the opportunity for self-expression. We may take a popular song and ask the patient to make up lyrics that express the way they feel. We also provide simple instruments and tell kids to just jam and create their own music. Banging on a drum can get feelings out that the child might not have been able to verbalize.”

BETH SMALLEY, Board Certified Art Therapist: “When I go in to meet a patient, I tell them I’m not an art teacher, and you don’t have to be an artist to make therapeutic art. That takes the pressure off. I also tell them that art doesn’t have to be pretty, and if you have upsetting feelings and want to express them, that’s OK.

I use a variety of materials, depending on the patient’s age and the reason they’re in the hospital. I might give a directive, such as, what does feeling sad look like? We might use medical supplies, such as painting with syringes. If a child is feeling angry or frustrated, we might use clay to express that emotion. The child can create a pain scale they can use to indicate the level of pain they’re feeling.

Before I meet with a patient, I make sure I’ve set goals. It’s not arts and crafts; it’s a therapeutic intervention. There have been many studies about the benefits of creative arts on the body. When patients have the opportunity to process their feelings through the art they make, they can become calmer because they had a chance to process their feelings.”

KELLIE SARACINO, Certified Child Life Specialist: “Because Saint Barnabas Medical Center has the only state-certified burn facility in New Jersey, we see kids from all over. We meet them as soon as they get here and prepare them for what they’re going to see and experience.

We teach the healing process of burns. We bring a baby doll to place burn dressings on it. We have the kids play the role of the burn technician and talk through each step of the process. How is the baby doll going to cope with this? Should I hold the baby doll’s hand or does the baby doll want to watch a video while the dressing is being changed?

It’s very difficult for children, and we validate their feelings. We tell them we know it’s hard for them and remind them of the important steps of their recovery and what a wonderful job they’re doing in order to get better.

Parents are typically here for these educational sessions so they can continue the discussions when we’re not around. We also have separate discussions with parents regarding their own coping, because it’s very hard for them to see their child in this situation.”

Learn more about pediatric services at Saint Barnabas Medical Center.