Child Life Heroes: Overcoming Challenges with Play

“It was awful. Screaming, yelling, trying to bite, kick, and punch.” Michelle watched as the boy did everything he could to escape doing his physical therapy exercises. She wasn’t sure how to help, but she needed to figure out something quickly.


Going through hospital treatment can be a nightmare for kids. It’s likely the hardest thing they’ve ever experienced, and it often involves dealing with a lot of fear and pain as they face challenges that they’ve never faced before. Child Life Specialists have a crucial role in the midst of this difficult time: helping children cope with the stress and uncertainty of illness, injury, disability, and hospitalization. They help kids get through experiences that they never imagined they’d have to go through.

Michelle Carrillo is learning all of this first-hand as a Child Life intern at Providence Children’s Hospital (PCH) in El Paso, Texas. Engaging patients in therapeutic play is an important part of her work at PCH, and she recently shared with me how she helped one of her patients accomplish a difficult task using one of her favorite play therapy tools.

From left: Ana Aburto, Michelle Carrillo, Peggy Gerard

From left: Ana Aburto, Michelle Carrillo, Peggy Gerard

“We have an oncology patient that challenges all of us,” Michelle recounts. The physical therapists had been working with this boy for quite some time, trying to get him to complete therapy exercises that he needed for his treatment. But the patient was having a bad day, and he didn't want to do his physical therapy.

And that’s not a surprise—physical therapy is hard enough to get adults to comply with, let alone a young boy who doesn’t understand why he has to do painful, tiring and frustrating exercises. Physical therapists have a tough job to do. On this particular day, when Michelle walked into the patient’s physical therapy session to help, the scene she saw was not pretty.

“It was awful. Screaming, yelling, trying to bite, kick, and punch.”

The boy wasn’t able to speak because of his medical condition, but it was obvious that he wanted no part of the exercises.

Unless something changed, this session was going to go the same way that the previous ones had. Michelle wanted to help him rise to the challenge of his physical therapy, and right now that didn’t seem very likely. But she had one more idea, saved in her back pocket.

“I opened with the line ‘I have an elephant in my pocket, do you want to meet it?’, and he stopped crying.”

elephant (2).jpg

“I opened with the line ‘I have an elephant in my pocket, do you want to meet it?’, and he stopped crying.”

Michelle could see that his curiosity was piqued, and she had his attention. How could she have an elephant in her pocket?

“I proceeded to pull the elephant Journey Card out of my pocket and used it with the SpellBound app,” Michelle tells me, “and using SpellBound, we were able to get him through the entire PT session and got him to stand, which he was refusing to do.”

Later in the session, Michelle and the physical therapists got the patient to actually take some steps using the Magic Tree Card.

“We moved through all of the SpellBound cards that I had in my pocket,” says Michelle, “and we were able to quickly get him through what normally would have taken much longer or wouldn’t have happened at all.” With the help of the cards, he was able to focus, cooperate, and finish his therapy session.

That PT session was a highlight moment for Michelle, a great example of using her Child Life training and creativity to help a patient conquer an obstacle by promoting effective coping through play. His session would have been much harder to complete without her help.

Michelle has lots of tools to help her do her work, and SpellBound is one she uses often. “It’s pretty remarkable to see what SpellBound can do...it’s a tool I use all the time, almost every time I’m in the hospital.”

As she finished telling me her story, Michelle mentioned how important it is that the whole hospital staff team works together to help patients accomplish their treatment goals. Child Life Specialists don’t work as lone rangers. For great patient care to happen, doctors, nurses, physical therapists, Child Life Specialists and everyone else in the hospital has to work together as a team.

Throughout the rest of Michelle’s internship at PCH, she’ll keep building her skills as a Child Life Specialist. Along the way, she’ll be helping lots of kids overcome the difficult health challenges that they face.

David Nesbitt1 Comment