Child Life Comforts During Crisis

April 20, 2020
Topics: Donors, Child Life

Child Life COVID Blog Full Size 04.20.2020

Wouldn’t it be helpful right now to have someone to help us find our sense of calm in a storm?

Distract us from things that seem too difficult to handle?

Create laughter and smiles when things feel dark? 

Teach us tricks to stay flexible when things don’t go as planned?

Most of us could use the support of “comfort experts” during these times. The COVID-19 outbreak is the kind of crisis Child Life Specialists were born to handle.

Patients and families at Riley Hospital for Children are still receiving the full embrace of support from the Child Life team during these stressful times. That’s because of supporters like you.

“We are still able to provide complete care to our patients and families because of our donors,” says Child Life Special Events Supervisor Melissa Sexton. “Across the country, hospital budgets are impacted. We are still here because of you.”

“Really we’re functioning at full capacity,” says Child Life Supervisor Abigail Rainey. “Child Life Specialists from outpatient areas that closed down are helping in areas that are seeing patients at a high volume, such as dialysis, the cancer center, stem cell unit and burn unit. We are still going to rooms and having interventions with kids and supporting families in this extra stressful time.”


All Riley team members are now wearing masks when they interact with patients. “Kids are seeing their providers look different,” says Abigail. “In the emergency room, the providers they have eye coverings and a mask, and that can be a little scary for kids. Our team has done a lot of educating families about the safety those protective coverings are providing, and normalizing it for kids through play.”

For patients in isolation because of confirmed or suspected COVID-19, Child Life Specialists have the ability to provide virtual support through technology. “We are collaborating as much as possible with the medical team to figure out what is the child worried about and what would help them cope,” says Abigail. “I did a session a few weeks ago with a patient from the playroom. We had to be cautious because of their positive status, so I brought iPad in the playroom and the patient had an iPad in their room, and we did a scavenger hunt through FaceTime. I went to library and picked out books and read to the child, and we did some normal play.”

The vast majority of patients coming to Riley right now, however, are being seen for medical needs that have nothing to do with coronavirus. “Dialysis, chemotherapy, newly diagnosed diabetes―all of these things are still happening regardless of the pandemic,” Melissa says. “Kids still need to get PICC lines placed, spinal taps and bone marrow aspirations, and our team is there to support them.”


The Child Life team has made some significant changes to adapt to the situation. Schedules have become more flexible for staff members. The Child Life Zone is now closed to patients, so it has become sort of a “command center” for the Child Life Specialists. They are coordinating more calls between patients and family members at home due to tight visitor restrictions. They’ve also ramped up their “Zone to Go” program, delivering activity kits to more kids in their rooms. “Normally we would wait for a patient to call and make a request,” says Melissa. “But now, Kim Ziegler is doing regular rounding on all units to make sure kids’ activity and developmental needs are being met, and they have materials to stay occupied and motivated.”

Pet Therapy is on hold, as are special visitors and parties, so Melissa has shifted much of her focus to Riley’s Closed Circuit TV programming. “CCTV is a way we can reach all rooms at the same time,” says Melissa. “We went from one hour a week of interactive programming to 10 hours, and we pretty much did that overnight. Kids have a chance to call in and interact with other patients and know they’re not alone.” Part of her programming strategy is making sure kids and families still see familiar faces through CCTV. A hospital chaplain sent in a video reading a book. A Riley School Program teacher made a video of a science experiment. Pet Therapy volunteers are taking selfie videos with their dogs. “We’ve found some really good moments in this,” says Melissa. “The ability to connect with patients and spend more time because our census is a bit lower has been really good, and we’re also finding ways to utilize technology in ways we wouldn’t have considered before.”


Melissa and her team created a video featuring Riley team members thanking the adult medicine staff at IU Health for their work during the COVID crisis. It’s just one of many ways Riley’s Child Life team is helping the larger health system. “We’ve been tapped as the development psychosocial experts to provide resources to IU Health team members to support their own children,” says Abigail. “We are collaborating with the adult teams to provide support and morale building, and to support patients who are alone now because of visitor restrictions. We know there’s an added layer of concern for children of parents who are going into a health care setting right now. We’ve compiled resources into an IU Health booklet for parents so they don’t have to sift through information.”


At a time when many of us are being asked to stay home, how does it feel to go into the hospital setting day after day? “I kind of feel a sense of unity with the community,” says Abigail. “We have worked with the public to help flatten the curve and limit the flow of patients. I do feel proud to be a part of a group of people that are stepping foot outside for more than essential groceries. I have feelings at different times, of apprehension, but the true north of wanting to provide good health care for our community helps me step out that door. I’m proud to be a part of a team that’s helping the community.”

Melissa adds, “It’s a mix of emotions every day. It’s something we haven’t had to do before. At the same time we’re helping others cope, we are learning how to cope with it. Giving yourself the grace to not know, and to feel vulnerable and exposed at times is okay.”

If you would like to make a gift to support the child life team you can do that at

Riley Blogger

The Riley Blog is written and/or edited by members of the Riley Children's Foundation Communications Staff.

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