Children’s Hospital Uses Play to Treat Pediatric Patients

Can you imagine the fear a pint-sized patient must feel during a hospital stay?

Millie McKibben, age four, certainly does. Millie faced a medical crisis, procedures and being away from her home during her recent stay at ProMedica Toledo Children’s Hospital. Her mother, Jennifer McKibben, was recovering from strep throat when Millie came down with a fever.

“Her physician thought it was ‘her turn’ for strep. Her lymph nodes were huge so she was placed on antibiotics,” states Jennifer. “Millie’s condition did not improve so they decided to admit her to the hospital.”

Not a Patient, But a Caped Mini-Hero

Millie and her mom took a little detour to the store before heading to the hospital. “Millie loves mermaids and I told her we would get one. Somehow she ended up choosing a Barbie super power cape,” recalls Jennifer. “It was shiny and sparkly. Millie wore it into the hospital and told me it was her way of being brave.”

Thankfully, “Super Millie” and her family didn’t have to face the experience alone. The Child Life Program team at Toledo Children’s Hospital was armed with compassion, resources and education to help her combat her fear.

Millie photo option I
“Super Millie”

“Miss Millie was a joy and I am so happy I had the opportunity to work with her,” states Stephanie Sproles, an intern with the Child Life Program. “Her Barbie dress and cape shined and sparkled as much as her personality.”

As defined by the Child Life Council, “Child Life specialists are trained professionals with expertise in helping children and their families overcome life’s most challenging events.” They also play a vital role in educating caregivers, administrators, and the general public about the needs of children under stress.

Sproles says the team of Child Life specialists utilize their strong background in child development and family systems to promote effective coping through play, preparation, education, and self-expression activities. They provide emotional support for families, and encourage optimum development of children facing a broad range of challenging experiences, particularly those related to healthcare and hospitalization. Because they understand that a child’s well-being depends on the support of the family, Child Life specialists also provide information, support and guidance to parents, siblings, and other family members.

Building a Relationship with Peds Patients

After Millie was admitted to the hospital, her lymph nodes continued to swell. “The lumps were as big as my adult fist,” states Jennifer. “We were asked questions regarding our family history and I thought it could be cancer. It was so scary.”

Jennifer says Child Life took the time to build a relationship with Millie. “When it was time to put the IV in, they brought in a book and a doll and distracted her during that process,” says Jennifer. “They also told her it was important to remain still. When they took the IV out, they came back in to be with her.”  

Stephanie Sproles, Child Life intern
Stephanie Sproles, Child Life intern

Sproles believes that building a rapport with patients and their families plays an important role in establishing trust and open communication. “Before the placement of the I.V., we went into ‘Miss Millie’s’ room to introduce Child Life services to promote positive coping and initiate rapport,” states Stephanie. “Millie giggled as we blew bubbles and popped them together. Even though I could tell she was fearful of the unfamiliar environment, through play we established a relationship.

You can’t keep a mini, caped superhero down. Although Millie didn’t feel well, she still desired to play. “We took many walks down the hall to the playroom,” says Jennifer. “We painted, played air hockey and colored. It was a nice release for her and for me. It kept my mind off of worrying and hers off her pain. Child Life brought her a gift of an American Girl doll. The doll, which she still plays with today, was great because she practiced on the doll what they were doing to her. She put band aids on the doll and gave her a pretend IV.”

The Child Life team often engages children in “medical play” as a way to educate patients and their families about procedures and to reduce stress,” states Sproles. “Play is the way children explore and learn about their environment. It also allows for expression of emotion, normalization and socialization.”

“Super Girl” Recovers

It took two weeks and three rounds of antibiotics for Millie’s condition to improve.

“She is back to bouncing around and having fun with her twin brother Maks and younger brother Hudson,” states Jennifer. “It breaks my heart knowing there are children in the hospital with serious conditions. I am so grateful for the care we received and the knowledge that the Child Life team is there for kids during such stressful times. With their help, Millie felt totally safe and comfortable in the hospital environment.”

And it looks like Millie’s experience will stay with her for the long run. “When we walked out of the hospital, Millie yelled, ‘I’m going to miss you’ down the hall to Stephanie,” says Jennifer. “To this day, she will randomly tell people “I went to the hospital and got a shot in my leg’. It is not shared as a negative experience but as a memorable and empowering one.”

Click here to learn more about the Child Life program at Toledo Children’s Hospital.