Certified Child Life Specialists (CCLSs) help children cope with challenges they may face in a medical setting to improve overall patient and family care. Strangers, large machines, and loud noises are enough to make anyone anxious, let alone a child. At UVA, we understand that the experience of a medical imaging exam can sometimes be confusing and intimidating to children. For this reason, UVA Radiology offers the services of two Certified Child Life Specialists to give children the best possible health care experience.
What is a Child Life Specialist?
A Certified Child Life Specialist (CCLS) is a trained healthcare professional with expertise in how illness and hospitalization affects children and their development. At UVA Children’s Hospital we are lucky to have a team of highly qualified Child Life Specialists, including two who specifically work with children undergoing radiology procedures—Landon Jones, BS, CCLS and Savannah Sweatman, MS, CCLS. Each specialist has completed:
a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree
a 100-hour practicum
a 600-hour internship
a certification test
All this training is necessary for our Child Life Specialists to fulfill their crucial role: teaching and helping children cope with the difficult medical environment. They teach kids about the hospital, prepare them for difficult exams or procedures, and help them cope with being hospitalized in general. They also work to support the entire family by incorporating parents into their child’s care plan, as well as supporting siblings who may feel uneasy.
At UVA Radiology and Medical Imaging, our Child Life Specialists primarily help children in outpatient care who need an MRI exam. This may include helping a child stay still and calm during an exam, or helping a child deal with having an IV put into their arm. Additionally, they can help pediatric in-patients who may need an imaging exam or an interventional radiology procedure. Savannah says, “For radiology, we use developmentally appropriate preparation in conjunction with play to help children have a better experience while they are in the hospital. A lot of the time we help children cope with the procedure without the need for sedation.”
Meet UVA Radiology’s Child Life Specialists
Landon Jones and Savannah Sweatman were drawn to this field because they both have a strong passion for helping children. They appreciate how UVA values family-centered care, and how eager radiology has been to integrate their care and utilize their services.
Landon and Savannah love to watch children learn their own coping techniques, leaving the child feeling empowered that they were able to get through a scary experience on their own. Savannah remembers one particular 8 year old boy who associated the hospital with being poked and prodded. She used therapeutic play to help him prepare for his IV needle, and when the time came for him to receive an IV he said “Is that all?”
The Power of Play
Landon and Savannah give children the opportunity to play before, during, and after the procedure. This is it helps not only with learning, but also with transforming children’s mindset about the hospital from one of fear to one of safety and comfort. Their preparation techniques include “medical play”—showing children what the medical equipment will look like, having a child pick where to place an IV on a doll, or putting a doll through a toy scanner.
During the exam, some kids choose to watch a movie or listen to music. Other kids simply need mom or dad to be there. A Child Life Specialist lets the child choose how they will best cope. This way, a child can feel more in control of a situation where they don’t have a lot of choices.
Helping Kids Stay Still Without Sedation
An MRI exam can take over an hour, and the child must remain very still throughout the whole exam. That’s a tall order for many children! Often, healthcare providers will use conscious sedation to keep children still throughout the exam. The problem is that the waitlist for MRIs with sedation can be lengthy, delaying when the child can get their scan. Usually, radiology schedulers will reach out to a CCLS when they see that a child ages 5 and up needs an MRI and might be able to have the exam without sedation. This sidesteps the long waitlist and negates the potential side-effects sedation can have on children.
The CCLS will call the parents to learn more about the child (finding out if they are really scared about the exam, or how they deal with things that scare them, etc.) and inquire if the parents think their child can make it through the exam without sedation. At this time, they also provide the parents with resources to start familiarizing their child with the scan.
If the CCLS discerns that the child can handle the exam without sedation, they schedule the exam and the CCLS will meet the family beforehand to work with the child. The CCLS is usually the first person to meet the child in the waiting room, and immediately starts building rapport with the child and becoming their friend. They often even go back with them for the procedure and make sure they’re okay during the exam. Landon says, “ I love seeing when parents are pleasantly surprised that their child is able to sit still for 45 minutes at a time without sedation.”
To learn more about the Child Life Program at UVA click here or catch up with some of the amazing things they are doing by following uva_childlife on Instagram. If you would like to have a Certified Child Life Specialist work with your child for their MRI, talk to your scheduler.