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Susan Gallegos explains what a child life specialist does, common techniques used to help children cope, and the different support groups available at Shriners Hospital for Children — Portland.

Child Life Services Helping Kids Cope

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Melanie Cole (Host): Welcome. Today we’re talking about child life services and more importantly helping kids cope. My guest is Susan Gallegos. She’s a child life specialist at Shriners Hospital for Children in Portland. Susan, I’m so glad to have you join us today. You’re a child life specialist at the Portland Shriners Hospital. How long have you been working there and who is part of your team? Tell us what you do.

Susan Gallegos (Guest): Well, I am a child life specialist that has been working here at Shriners Hospital for 19 ½ years but I’ve actually been doing child life for almost 30 years. And I work with two coworkers. One is Cindy Millard and another is Jenelle McCurial.

Host: Now tell us exactly what a child life specialist is. What do you do?

Susan: Well a child life specialist has many roles that we do here in the hospital and with the goal of helping patients receive the best developmentally appropriate preparation for procedures, surgeries, and to ensure that patients are coping with their hospital stay. Doing that, we use medical play teaching, we use preprocedural preparation where we are helping the kids prepare for say a pin out, staples out, cast off, blood draws. We do those kinds of things.

Host: Wow, it’s so important to help kids because it can be very scary to be at a hospital. Why are your services so important to your patients? What kind of a response to your services do you see with them?

Susan: Yes, being in the hospital can be very stressful for anyone regardless of age and they have anxiety and fear related to their diagnosis, procedures, treatments. There’s also in interruption of their normal routine. They are also separated from family and friends and familiar surroundings possibly for the first time being away from home and being away from their family. And there’s also that loss of independence and privacy. So, by providing support to those children, it helps them be able to cope better with being in the hospital and helping to make this a positive experience for them.

Host: What a wonderfully important job that you have Susan. And the Portland Shriners Hospital, you provide holistic care meaning that you not only care for the patient but for their family as well. How do your services extend to parents and even siblings that are worried about what their sibling is going through?

Susan: We provide family-centered care here at the hospital which means we include the whole family, siblings, parents. And parents know the child the best. So, we want to make sure that their parents are involved with this care. We often ask them how does your child handle stress. How does your child handle pain. What are the things that comfort them the best. So, we try to incorporate that into the care that we have here. And many times with the siblings, even if it’s just a first time hospitalization or if it’s a hospitalization that has happened numerous times with their sibling; they often feel left out and they are not sure what’s happening with their sibling. So, what we do is we try to incorporate all the teaching that we do with the patient, we also do that with the siblings and encouraging them to talk about their feelings so that they know that they are being listened to and heard.

Host: Well along those lines then, what are some of the common techniques that you use to prepare and calm a patient before surgery? What are you doing with them?

Susan: We see patients usually the day before surgery and we do what’s called medical play where we have teaching dolls and we use actual medical equipment. So, we show the kids how an IV is started, what it is, and why they are having it. we talk about the anesthesia. We show the anesthesia mask. If they are going to be getting any type like a Foley catheter, we actually show that and demonstrate and explain why that’s happening. So, the more the child knows, the less fearful they are and the easier it is to go back to surgery.

Many times we are there with them before surgery, just giving calming them down, doing distractions with them, talking with them, blowing bubbles, those kinds of things. It just makes it a lot easier going back into surgery.

Host: In addition to support, within the hospital Susan, your team has done school visits for patients experiencing bullying. What goes on in this visit and why is it so significant for your patients to have this?

Susan: Yes, we team up with a social worker and we will go into the child’s classroom and sometimes it’s also with other classrooms. It just depends on the situation. And what we do is we have a video that we bring or a DVD that was produced and made here by Shriners Hospitals and it’s called Kids Just Want to Have Fun and we really talk about how kids are the same and kids are different, but we are more alike than we are different. After we show this video, we bring equipment out. We have a wheelchair, walker, Canadian crutches, we have prosthetic arms, prosthetic legs, back braces. We show the equipment so that their classmates know that other kids have these things and why they are being used. And then we allow the kids to actually come up and try on the braces, feel the different arms and legs, try out the wheelchairs and then we also do a finger cast with all the kids, so the kids feel what it feels like to have a cast. And then we have a wrap up session about how we talk about how we can help each other and how we can help the patient who may be bullied and how that can help the whole classroom.

Host: That’s so cool that you do that. So, you also hold various support groups. Can you tell us about some of those whether it’s limb differences or the MD clinic, halo buddies. Tell us about some of these.

Susan: Yes. We have a limb difference support group that meets quarterly and our muscular dystrophy clinic MD clinic also meets quarterly. And we have halo buddies that are brought in with Children’s Cancer Association. They started a buddy program over at Doernbecher and we incorporated it for our long-term halo patients. The nice thing about the support groups is that kids who have differences are going to meet up with kids that have the same differences as them. There was a family in our muscular support group who had never met another family who had a child with Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy and that child had never seen another child that had Duchenne’s, so they were able to get together and talk about things that were similar, what are things that are helpful for them. The same thing with the limb difference support groups.

A lot of these times we will have speakers come in and at the same time, I’ll be with the children doing a fun activity while the parents get some one on one time with parents and talk about adult things that the kids find boring. And then with our halo buddies, like I said, we have a volunteer that comes over and spends some quality time just doing fun activities with our halo traction kids who are in the hospital anywhere from six to eight weeks at a time.

Host: How important. That is so great. So, now tell us a little bit about you. What’s the most rewarding aspect of your job Susan and I can imagine there are just so many based on what you do.

Susan: There are. I mean I wear many different roles being here in the hospital. Being a child life specialist, I’m there to help support the kids but we also provide fun activities for the children. I’m also the coordinator for our animal assisted therapy program where we have – we have five different dog teams coming in and visiting with the kids. We also work closely with our music therapists and community groups that come in. We have an art therapy program with CHAP which is Children’s Healing Art Project and they come and do art therapy with our kids, so we work closely with them.

But I think the best thing that I like about my job is just working with the children, seeing the children really grow. There have been families that are now for me, second generation. I’ve worked with a parent who was a patient and now they are a parent and they are bringing their children here. So, it’s fun to see that.

Host: As we wrap up, what’s something you would tell a family whose about to receive care at the Portland Shriners Hospital?

Susan: They are going to receive the best care around. We are so specialized, and we are such – we are a small hospital, so we get to know all the patients and everybody here, their main goal is to make the hospital stay the best possible for the child. And that includes the nurses, the medical staff, the CNAs, even down to housekeeping and kitchen. We just do such a wonderful job making it feel like home for these kids and I can’t say enough about the care that we give.

Host: Thank you so much Susan, really, thank you for all that you do and what a great job that you have. That wraps up this episode with Shriners Hospitals for Children in Portland. For more information and to get connected with one of our providers please call 503-241-5090 or you can head on over to our website at If you found this podcast as informative and interesting as I did, please share on your social media, share with your friends and family and that way we all learn together from the experts at the Shriners Hospitals for Children in Portland. And don’t miss all the other fascinating podcasts in our library. Until next time, I’m Melanie Cole.

About The Speaker

Susan Gallegos

Susan Gallegos is a Child Life Specialist at Shriners Hospital for Children in Portland.

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