By Jack Smith, Auburn University
AUBURN — Leaving the stress of work at the office isn’t easy for anyone.
For Child Life Specialists like Lindsey Smith, it’s not only hard. It can be heartbreaking.
“Day to day, there are times that I think, how do I do what I do? I don’t know that I can do this,” said Smith, who works with cancer patients at Children’s of Alabama.
One of those days came recently when Smith and a Children’s oncologist had to tell a teenage cancer patient that his bone marrow transplant had failed. Nothing else could be done.
“End of life discussions are really hard. He knew his only cure was a bone marrow transplant,” Smith said. “Bone marrow transplant is usually the last resort.”
The patient’s anguished mother was reluctant to tell her son the devastating prognosis.
As the liaison between the doctor, the patient and the family, it was Smith’s job to step in and do the right thing.
“The mother finally understood what we needed to do, so I came alongside the doctor, and we were able to have that conversation with the patient. It was very clear to me. This kid needed and deserved to know, in an age-appropriate way, that this was where we were. He deserved to know that the transplant did not work.”
As excruciating as it was, Smith went home knowing she had done her job.
“It was like a burden was lifted off everyone in the room after we had that really tough conversation,” Smith said. “He was able to make some decisions that I believe he had a right to make. We were able to talk about goals and what he wanted to do with the time he had left.”
Every day is not as painful for Smith and the staff of Child Life Specialists, who are a part of the medical team in nearly every department at Children’s. Their job is to help make hospitalization and illness less stressful for children and their families.
Smith said the young patients at Children’s inspire her every day.
“They are the most resilient people I have ever met,” she said. “I always say I could never work with adults. These kids jump back so quickly. They just deal with it, losing their hair or chemo. They have given me a new perspective.”
While the role of Child Life Specialist is often misunderstood, doctors, patients and families at Children’s know they are a vital part of the medical team.
They are professionally trained to meet the unique needs of children and teenagers facing illness or hospitalization. The career requires specialized degrees like the Human Development and Family Studies major with a child life concentration in Auburn’s College of Human Sciences, the program Smith completed in 2014.
Child Life Specialists draw on their background of child development every day as they encounter children facing everything from routine tests to prolonged hospitalization.
Smith said they usually find keeping children in the dark is more harmful than helpful.
That’s why they use methods and tools children understand when explaining medical procedures or expected outcomes.
“One thing we tend to find is when kids don’t know what’s happening, that’s when the anxiety comes up,” Smith said. “We use our background in child development to find an age-appropriate way to tell them what’s going to happen.”
While parents of cancer patients often don’t want to tell their children their hair may fall out, Smith has to find a way to help parents understand that sharing information actually alleviates some of the fear.
“If they understand the process of why the chemo makes them lose their hair, it helps them deal with that process. For simple procedures, like placing a line to get chemo, we make sure they understand in a simple way what it’s for and to help them. We help them understand they haven’t done anything wrong. That directly affects the way they are going to cope with it.”
Smith, who knew she wanted to pursue a career in child life after the tragic death of her sister’s teenage friend, said her career has been as hard and as satisfying as she expected it to be.
“I’m just humbled to get to do what I do every day,” she said. “We just meet these kids where they are on their good days and their bad days, and we get to be that person for them. They get to share what they are feeling with us, whether they are happy or mad. By the end of it, you get to see how much they have grown throughout the journey. It’s very rewarding.”
To learn more about the Child Life concentration and hear what Auburn alumni have to say about their jobs, go to aub.ie/childlife.
Written by Jack Smith firstname.lastname@example.org