For Jeri Young, St. Charles Health System’s child life specialist, every day brings a new set of patients, families, tasks and challenges.
Generally speaking, Young’s job is to help kids cope with medical care through play, self-expression activities and age-appropriate education. In a given day, that could include using rain sticks to distract a toddler from a needle poke, educating a dying parent on how to talk to their kid about end-of-life, developing child-focused hospital policies, or sitting on the floor for an hour, playing Legos with a young patient.
Young learned long ago that the only predictable part of her job is its unpredictability.
“My favorite question is, ‘What does a typical day look like?’ and my answer is, ‘You write out your schedule for the day and then you tear it up and throw it away. And off you go,’” she said.
Young came to Central Oregon in the spring of 2019 after 37 years experience working as a child life specialist at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Colorado Springs, as well as Shriners Hospitals for Children and Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland. She is St. Charles’ first child life specialist.
Funded by more than $140,000 raised by the St. Charles Foundation, the system’s child life specialist program was created to help young patients and their families adjust and cope with hospital or clinic settings, illness or injury and the treatments involved. Because children process information much differently from adults, they have distinct needs for managing the effects of stress and trauma.
“The hospital is scary for anybody, so trying to make it a little less scary for kids is our goal. I explain the things that are going to happen to them and the role they’re going to play. We talk through the procedure before it’s performed or even while it’s being performed,” Young said. “We play, because what do kids do? They don’t sit in a bed and watch TV with their parents sitting nearby. They play. So ultimately, we’re trying to normalize the situation for the kiddos and we want to help them build support and skill systems for themselves.”
In her first year at St. Charles, Young helped more than 1,300 patients in the pediatric inpatient unit, the Emergency Department, the Intensive Care Unit and the pre-op and radiology departments, said Randa Bates, nurse manager for Neonatal Intensive Care and Pediatric Services. More specifically, Young has helped many pediatric patients undergo an MRI without sedation, which lowers their risk and shortens their stay at the hospital, Bates said.
Additionally, Young has revamped multiple hospital policies to be more child-friendly, she started a volunteer program to support the pediatric unit, and she is part of a workgroup that’s designing the hospital’s pediatric treatment room, Bates said.
“There’s just a ton of work that Jeri has done around here, and she has built so many of these things from the ground up,” she said. “It’s pretty amazing to step back and take a look at the impact.”
With help from schedulers and nurses, Young sometimes knows what’s coming her way in a given day. But with word spreading about her services, she also has to remain agile enough to respond to emergent needs and unplanned calls for help.
“I arrived this morning to a lovely sticky note that said, ‘I have a child downstairs. Would you go see them and support them?’” she said. “The longer I’m here, the more those kinds of things are coming through. It just takes boots on the ground and continuing to say, ‘I’m here. How can I help?’”
Elizabeth Oshel’s family found their way to Young via referral from daughter Piper’s primary care physician. When the doctor sent Piper to the hospital for a procedure, he specifically told Oshel to seek out the child life specialist.
“He was the one who said it’s important that we have this resource available to us,” said Oshel, who lives in Bend. “He said, ‘When you call and schedule, make sure you tell them that I want the child life specialist there for her.’”
When the family arrived at St. Charles Bend, Young was waiting in the lobby, Oshel said, and immediately started working to entertain Piper, 7, and to ease her mind. Once the two had a rapport, Oshel said, Young began asking the girl if she had questions or worries, or if she wanted any information.
“Jeri was able to normalize the things Piper was worried about and she reassured her that it was OK to be worried and that she’d get answers for her,” Oshel said. “It was incredible to see how Piper’s demeanor changed once she knew Jeri was in her corner.”
Young waited for Piper to come out of her procedure and reassured her. When a follow-up procedure was scheduled, she set up a day-before tour of the room for the family. All along the family’s journey at St. Charles Bend, Young “stayed one step ahead of us” in terms of logistics — in addition to helping Piper overcome her anxiety.
Looking back, Oshel believes Young’s role is essential to the hospital’s pediatric programming.
“I don’t see how you can provide those kinds of services for kids without the services of a child life specialist on staff,” she said. “It was absolutely amazing to have someone there who was focused on the patient and their well-being, not just the medical aspect of their care.”
Of course, Young is just one person, and by nature, she is the type who believes there’s always room for improvement. So while she can’t get to every child in the hospital who needs support, she continues to work with other caregivers to try to catch as many as she can. In the meantime, the hospital has a second child life specialist, Kyle Calhoon, set to join the team on June 15, Bates said.
She couldn’t be more excited, because she knows what a difference the program has made at St. Charles.
“We used to hear stories from families about kids throwing a fit while going into surgery, and rightfully so — they’re scared,” Bates said. “We don’t hear nearly as many of those stories anymore, and that’s a testament to Jeri’s work, to the Foundation’s support for this program, and to the doctors, nurses and others who are calling her in to help in those situations. It truly is a team effort, and the kids and their families are the ones who benefit.”