The Life of a Child Life Specialist

. October 1, 2017.

Working as a Child Life Specialist in the Radiation Oncology clinic at the University of Michigan’s Mott Children’s Hospital, Kristan Freitag’s goal is to help patients and families cope with the hospital setting, how to get through procedures in the least threatening way and provide opportunities for children to still be children, even though they are in the hospital and have uncertainties, fears, and confusion.


Preparation is the first step

When it comes to preparing kids for procedures and treatment, “a lot of it is medical play, to learn, and give them an opportunity to become more familiar with treatment, equipment, and practice procedures, so treatment is less scary,” says Freitag. Preparation is helpful to minimize fear and anxiety, provide clarification, improve cooperation, and promote long-term coping with medical challenges. Child Life Specialists employ procedure preparation, medical play, coping methods and plans, support, and distraction techniques, tailored to each patient, to prepare patients for the “what” and “why”. They do this by explaining, modeling, or with demonstrations helping children become more comfortable with a procedure.


Developing a coping plan

Once a child is ready for treatment, Freitag works to develop a coping plan, which may involve choosing music and audio books to listen to during treatments, or colors and designs for brain radiation masks. “Once they have their routine set up and know what their music will be, have their mask, a blanket, et cetera, I focus on providing opportunities for play and positive experiences, support for siblings to still feel connected, and helping parents come up with ideas and plans.”

The clinic, for both adults and children, also helps adult patients and their children, so the child knows where mom or dad is coming every day, and introducing the child to the parent’s medical team.


A Child Life Specialist at heart

Freitag acknowledged that her work is certainly not all play. “There are definitely days that are harder. I meet a lot of amazing children and families, but not everyone has the best outcomes following treatment. Seeing families going through heartbreaks can be very challenging.” In those trying times, her team comes together for support, debriefing, and coping.

When families are going through these incredibly scary times, “it is such an honor to provide support and smiles. It is a very special career and I cannot imagine doing anything else.”


Proven value of Child Life Specialists

In 2011, Freitag started tracking patient and staff satisfaction rates and amount of sedation used.

With sedation, children face:

  • Fasting before procedures
  • Enduring recovery periods
  • Feeling sick
  • Great stress

After 6 months, through Child Life techniques, sedation rates dropped from 40% to 4%.