Twelve-year-old Riann Collier from Indianapolis loves playing air hockey, bingo and crafting. But she doesn’t usually do those things at a friend’s house or an arcade—instead Riann does them in the Child Life Zone at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. Riann had six overnight stays at Riley in 2016 lasting anywhere from two to 30 days each time.
Riann began having health problems when she was 6 years old, and went through lots of testing and health monitoring. Five years later she was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease. Riann began chemotherapy at Riley Hospital, and was eventually put on dialysis because her kidneys began to fail. “You’re mad, then sad, then in denial,” said Riann’s mom, NaTasha Coleman. “You go through a lot of emotions.”
While Riann is able to do her kidney dialysis at home, she comes to Riley for routine bloodwork and occasional inpatient stays. “Sometimes I feel sick. Sometimes I feel fine. I take a lot of medicine,” said Riann. Her favorite medicine, however, comes in the form of passion and care she receives from her Child Life Specialist, Maggie Kirles. Child Life Specialists are “comfort experts” whose job is to make sure kids continue to act like kids, even while undergoing difficult treatments. Distracting kids during uncomfortable procedures, explaining medical terminology, teaching tricks to taking medications, and even helping kids visualize the inside of an operating room are all part of the job description.
“In Child Life we say, ‘You need more than just medicine to get well,’” said Kirles, who has served as a Riley Child Life Specialist for five years. “A kid’s job is to play; that’s how they connect with one another, learn and grow. A Child Life Specialist’s job is to help treat the whole person, not just the illness.”
Grinning ear-to-ear, Riann describes the fun things she and Maggie have done together while at Riley, from practicing medical procedures on dolls, to playing games like air hockey in Riley’s colorful Child Life Zone. Maggie was even there when Riann got a chance to meet one of her personal heroes, Indiana Fever basketball player Tamika Catchings. While Maggie serves many patients, Riann says she makes her feel like her “number one go-to-girl.” “She makes me forget why I’m here,” Riann explains.
Families like Riann’s are not billed for these donor-supported services, which are a pivotal part of keeping Riann healthy socially and emotionally as she faces her health challenges. “As a parent, I have to work during the day and I can't be here all the time to entertain my child,” said NaTasha. “The program takes a lot of pressure of us as parents, so it's worth every dime that’s donated.”