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Dude, the dinosaur, is getting a check-up today.
Four-year-old Allyson carefully checks his heartbeat with a purple plastic stethoscope and triumphantly pulls a tourniquet from the doctor’s bag when she’s advised that Dude needs a shot.
She studs Dude’s eyes and nostrils with EKG stickers and proclaims, “He’s all better!”
Allyson must know something about treating dinosaurs the rest of us don’t. Megan Fisher is Allyson’s co-healer today and her child life specialist everyday. Unquestionably, Megan knows something about treating children that the rest of us don’t.
These types of exchanges, called medical play, teach Allyson to cope with her health challenges in a language she’s already fluent in. By familiarizing Allyson with medical equipment and procedures, Megan eases Allyson’s anxiety about her upcoming cardiac surgery at the Heart Institute at Children’s Hospital Colorado. By getting Allyson out of her hospital room and into a playroom that’s home to a dinosaur, a castle playhouse and a Rocky Mountain wallscape, Megan helps Allyson be a typical preschooler.
Dealing with complex medical issues can cause emotional scarring, especially when it comes to children. Megan is an advocate for Allyson’s wholeness — making sure her psychological changes keep pace with her physical treatments and that she stays engaged in all the little things that make being a 4-year-old so magical.
Child life specialists are specially-trained and educated healthcare professionals who help children and families deal with the stress and fear that comes along with a diagnosis or being in the hospital.
Each child life specialist has earned a bachelor’s or master’s degree in child development, education, psychology, Child Life or a related field; they’ve completed a rigorous internship, and they maintain certification from the Child Life Council. It’s a highly competitive field that often requires candidates to relocate far away from loved ones, but for both Megan and Natalie Fyles, a child life specialist in the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders, giving kids a sense of mastery that will help them throughout their lives is their passion and their purpose.
Natalie and her fellow child life specialists get to know all of the families who come to Children’s Colorado for cancer treatment. When kids are first diagnosed with cancer, Natalie assigns them an art project to help them visualize what they’re feeling. Sometimes it involves a giant watermelon, on which a child writes what they’re mad about, then takes it out into a field and pulverizes it with a baseball bat. Other times, a project is less physical, but just as visceral. One of Natalie’s patients chose to write the word “conquer” on a canvas and decorate it with red paint and a slew of miniature army men, each drafted into one side of a life-versus-cancer battle.
Today Natalie sits on the edge of a hospital bed with Abby, a 14-year-old who is fighting leukemia. Abby’s room is filled with cheerful cards from family, pictures of friends, and all kinds of owl and dragon figurines. Abby loves things with wings.
“The more times you poke the wool with the needle, the more the wool binds together and it gets stronger,” Natalie tells Abby as they felt an orange dragon together. Abby is being treated at Children’s Colorado for a relapse; she had leukemia as a 5-year-old and barely remembers the experience. This time around, Abby has been suffering from frequent anxiety. Natalie has spent several hours with her, teaching her deep breathing exercises that she uses to alleviate her angst.
No day is ever like another and sometimes a patient’s pain is so severe that Natalie can’t seem to help much. It can be heartbreaking, but it’s times like these — helping a child or family navigate scary moments during their treatment, or realizing how strong and courageous a patient is — when she feels humbled by the honor of her unique position.
Back at the Heart Institute, Megan agrees. “I always want a child to feel like they can do this — they were able to get through this and now they can do anything.”
Megan’s next patient is Chiriro, a soft-spoken fifth-grader who is waiting to get the “all clear” to return home. Megan’s bag of therapeutic toys is overflowing with glittery pinwheels, miniature globes and other treasures. Chiriro chooses colored pencils and a coloring book of mandalas, a Sanskrit symbol that represents something like wholeness.
“Yeah.” Megan smiles. “Let’s color.”
Most of the toys and art supplies used by child life specialists are donated. If you’d like to contribute, visit our wish list (.pdf).