Child Life Heroes: Child Life Month Feature

This Child Life Month, we hosted a nomination-based giveaway for child life specialists to nominate their colleagues and give recognition for their work. Emily Kittell, Certified Child Life Specialist at American Family Children’s Hospital, was the winning nominee. Emily’s nominator, Kristen Lawrence, spoke highly of how she has worked in a variety of different hospital settings and has impacted many patients and families, so I was excited to learn more about her role and experience as a CCLS.

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Emily’s career as a CCLS began almost ten years ago. After starting on an as-needed basis, she spent years in the Emergency Department (ED) and the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) before returning back to the ED in her current role where she works overnights. In her free time, she enjoys music and is frequently involved in her community’s musical theater. She and her husband have a 11-month-old daughter they adopted at birth. Her daughter was born with bladder exstrophy so her Child Life skills have become extremely valuable as a mother of a child with a chronic health condition.

Working overnight shifts in the ED has brought some unique challenges that she’s had to navigate. Since her children’s hospital is connected to the adult hospital, their ED shares staff. At night, there may not be any pediatric staff so it’s a challenge for the working staff to switch between adult and child patients. This is when Emily often utilizes her skills in comfort positions, distraction, preparation, and support, to ensure the staff can provide the best care for pediatric patients. “I typically overcome this by ‘proving by doing,’” she says, “I’ve found that I can talk about a theory or best practice until I'm blue in the face, but until a provider sees the benefits first hand, it's hard to convince them. I also use the motto ‘my job is to make your job easier’ with staff.”

Despite the challenges, Emily enjoys being kept on her toes. “The wonderful thing about the ED is that I never know what my shift is going to look like,” she tells me. “Will it be busy? Will I be challenged in my skills? Will I meet patients I've supported before or see all brand new faces? It's a great way to keep fresh and keep learning.” Her experience has also translated into research on a project regarding parental value of Child Life in the ED where she was the primary investigator. The research has since been presented at national pediatric conferences and at the national Child Life conference.

When I asked about her proudest moment as a CCLS, she shared that this past month she and her coworkers were recognized as Employees of the Month for their work with an end of life patient. “To have adult staff along with pediatric staff give us this honor was really special,” she says. “It was a hard case that involved family support, memory making, end of life, and everything that happens within trauma and bereavement. It's great to be recognized by my peers and to be acknowledged with specialists whom I respect and admire.”

"It’s always great to be reminded that what you do every day is so important. Even after 10 years, it still matters."

Emily also mentioned that her favorite Child Life stories tend to be the families that come back months or years later to express their gratitude about how her work has changed their lives. She’ll receive thank you letters or cards during Christmas-time or special anniversaries and finds that those things keep her going during the long, difficult days. “It’s always great to be reminded that what you do every day is so important. Even after 10 years, it still matters.”