I have always been uncomfortable even driving past hospitals, let alone walking inside. A hospital was always a scary place for me, synonymous with the end of life and the infinite sadness that hits a surviving family. My grandfather died alone in a hospital and although he was a solitary man by nature, I do wish his final hours were different.
I have seen hospitals as a maze of disillusion in sterile, endless hallways, of which blinding lights illuminate. Unknown machines, staff speaking a language I could not understand, and that alarm in the distance made me assume the worst; I find myself terrified of hospitals and secretly hoping and praying I would never end up in one.
And then I met Becca . . .
Rebecca Cartmill is a Bone Marrow Transplant Child Life Fellow at Children's Hospital of Michigan. Young, vibrant, and lively, she is for many children and families, a source of strength. Becca is the exact opposite of how I view hospitals; her warmth is a champion against the sterile hallways and bright lights that cause me so much apprehension.
She even knits in her free time.
“I’m getting ready for bed but my hair is on top of my head and I am knitting a scarf like my grandma,” she laughs.
For the Ally Jolie Baldwin Foundation, she is exactly the type of ambassador needed.
Ally was a brave, sweet girl. Although she is no longer here, we have the foundation so that her legacy might live on. There are kids and families right now receiving the most devastating news; news which puts them directly into the fight of their lives. That’s where we want to engage – between the unknown voids and stark realities facing these families. This is why we fund positions and people like Becca. Front-line soldiers of compassion to help bear the burdens, come what may.
“You can feel it in the air,” Becca said regarding the family dynamic in the hospital room where raw, human emotion is often present. “I feel connected to the family but in a professional role where I can separate, yet still go through the experience with them and help.”
Becca shared with me the story of one such family, in particular, a child needing surgery and on the spectrum for Autism. This child was experiencing sensory overload well before surgery, but people like Becca, supported by Children’s Hospital of Michigan and the Ally Jolie Baldwin Foundation, were able to respond in the most active and empathetic of ways.
“For the pre-surgery tour, I got down at his level and noticed he had a Woody doll,” Becca recalled. “I made it a game where we had Woody go to the hospital and then he would tell Woody all about what was going to happen.”
Becca went through surgery preparation books with colorful pictures and played an “I Spy” game during the pre-surgery tour. Through surgical reception and the admitting process, to the changing lights in the pre-operation area, Becca was guiding this child through the scary parts that were now, not so scary.
“This tour allowed him to go through and look at all the images, feel all the senses, and figure out what is going to happen before it does,” Becca said. “I was able to talk about the procedure and bring up different stimulation's
that might be a stressor for him.”
Becca continued through the operating room.
“We talked about the lights and what his job was with the mask and how to blow air in and out of it,” Becca said. “We practiced putting the mask on Woody and the day of the surgery, we flavored it so it would smell nice.”
Becca explained the “sleepy medicine” and how if Woody were taking it, he wouldn’t wake up right away like a nap at home. They finished their pre-surgery tour by blowing bubbles through the mask to practice the appropriate breathing techniques one last time. The surgery happened as scheduled and Becca went on to attend to other children. An e-mail from the family later confirmed the importance of Child Life Specialists supported by Children’s Hospital of Michigan and the Ally Jolie Baldwin Foundation.
“His mother told us he is no longer scared of hospitals,” Becca said. “They come here for appointments but he is no longer tearful when they have to.”
This child was forever touched by the legacy of a loving Child Life Specialist.
Becca attends to children and families, helping them cope with hospitalization on both the inpatient and outpatient side. The minimum stay is typically two months but can last as long as nine. Children are as young as newborns and as old as eighteen. Many of the conditions are chronic and range from cancer, to sickle cell disease, to graft vs host disease. And these are just a few. Children’s Hospital of Michigan sees and vast number of illnesses and provides a host of services in response, Child Life Specialists being just one.
Medical and other interdisciplinary hospital staff care deeply, but they lack the time to sit bedside and help with the emotional process. Child Life Specialists focus on developmental and psychosocial needs and tailor coping skills in an individual way. Becca, for example, has a rich child development background and can meet a child where they are. It’s very profound. If my child were in the hospital, I would want Becca there.
There is a continual need for Child Life Specialists at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan. Your financial support of the Ally Jolie Baldwin Foundation ensures the next child, clutching a Woody doll and overcome with fear, has a loving face at the other end. Somebody like Becca who takes away the unknowns, fills the void, and even makes the hospital fun.
“Whenever I come here it’s a new day and something new will always happen,” Becca said. “However, I do know that Child Life programs are proven to be beneficial and that children need that connection.”
Becca shares grief and loss with families, but also finds joy in each day. Though she acknowledges she takes things home, she tries not to. Recently married, her husband is supportive and understanding. The two were high school sweethearts, who fell in love during band camp.
“I know, it’s kinda dorky,” she said.