Child Life Heroes: A One-Person Show

 Photo provided by Alexandria Friesen

Photo provided by Alexandria Friesen

How would you balance working in the pediatric inpatient unit and outpatient oncology clinic, teaching a pre-surgery class four days a week, and providing after-hours cerebral palsy patient support once a month? Alexandria Friesen, Certified Child Life Specialist (CCLS), is doing just that as a one-person child life program at Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. I had the opportunity to ask her a bit more about her unique experiences of being the only CCLS in the hospital.

Alexandria was, as she calls it, “(un)fortunately” introduced to Child Life when diagnosed with Acute Myeloblastic Leukemia (AML) at the age of 8. Childhood cancer was a negative and very scary life event, but she sees that experience as being what led her to discover the Child Life profession in which she now thrives.

“Being a one-person child life program means that I really have to be careful and selective with how I divide my time,” Alexandria says, “Of course, I’d love to be able to provide care for every child that comes through our doors, but I also have to make sure that I am not spreading myself too thin.” In order to ensure that she uses her time most effectively, she’s had to prioritize. She finds it helpful to attend rounds each morning which are meetings where all hospital staff participate. There, she learns about each patient on the floor and can assess where the greatest needs are.

Another difficulty of being the only CCLS is that she’s the sole expert on Child Life in the entire hospital, meaning she alone decides what’s best for patients from a psychosocial perspective. “It has really challenged me to think outside the box and to trust my gut instinct. However, with that comes the challenge of not having other Child Life colleagues to consult with, or bounce ideas off of.” Luckily, she says that the local child life community is very connected and they rely on each other for support from afar.

In order to maximize her time and develop meaningful connections quickly, Alexandria uses tools like SpellBound to help her interact with the many patients that she sees daily. “I like that SpellBound is so interactive,” she says, “Not only are you holding the device in front of the tools and seeing something come to life, kids are able to make the character move based on how they touch the screen. They can take time exploring the ways to interact with the scene, which is great for distraction. Everyone is always amazed to know that I have this really cool tool that I can use with patients here at the hospital.” She mentioned that older patients and even parents are fascinated with SpellBound, too.

“As soon as I show SpellBound to the kids, they tend to open right up."

 SpellBound app on an iPad bringing the Phoenix Myth Card to life.

SpellBound app on an iPad bringing the Phoenix Myth Card to life.

She’s found SpellBound to be an interesting icebreaker with children who may be a little shy or withdrawn. “As soon as I show SpellBound to the kids, they tend to open right up,” she tells me, “Something as mesmerizing as SpellBound really attracts their attention and gets them more comfortable.”

Alexandria recalls one particular example of this: “There was one girl who had a lot of family visiting with her. She was just admitted to the hospital and clearly very overwhelmed with the atmosphere. I thought that she would be a great patient to try using SpellBound with, and I was right. She actively participated in the SpellBound book and was fascinated by the distraction tools. She immediately switched focus from all of the things around her that were making her uncomfortable, and found intense interest in the SpellBound tools I presented to her.”

Every parent would love to have a CCLS as passionate and empathetic as Alexandria working with their child. Whether they’re a one-person team like Alexandria or part of a team of 30, child life specialists are always busy making the medical experience better for kids all over the world. Even though Child Life Month just came to a close, let’s continue to recognize the strengths and accomplishments of child life specialists, and celebrate their important work.