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Home » Child life specialist helps families in Alabama hospitals during most difficult times of their lives
Isaiah Garner was afraid to be in the hospital. The 7-year-old’s appendix ruptured and had to be hospitalized for over a week after the operation.
His stay at East Alabama Medical Center in September 2022 took place immediately before the flag football test games. He would not be eligible to play at all during the fall season.
“He was down, not giving up, but he wasn’t happy at all to be there,” said Monique Garner, Isaiah’s mother.
Aside from a problem with his umbilical cord as a baby, Isaiah had never had surgery. His family did not know what his recovery would require.
“I broke down because I didn’t think he was going to get better anytime soon and just lost hope,” said Monique.
Isaiah Garner at East Alabama Medical Center. Credit Monique Garner
But soon enough, Monica Ard, the EAMC’s pediatric specialist, entered Isaiah’s room to help him adjust to life in the hospital.
Child Life Specialists are pediatric health professionals who help children and families navigate hospitalization and cope with illness. Specialists use therapeutic play and education to reduce anxiety and fear and are clinically trained in child development, psychology, and explaining death and grief to children.
Three colleges in Alabama—Auburn University, the University of Alabama, and the University of North Alabama—offer children’s life programs.
Most of the children’s life specialists in the state work at the Children’s of Alabama Hospital in Birmingham.
EAMC introduced the role in 2019, enabling families to receive holistic pediatric care without having to travel far from their communities.
Children’s of Alabama alone has 27 specialists who treat approximately 40,000 patients each year. Nationwide, 47 specialists were listed in the last publicly available census in 2013.
Ard started at EAMC in 2022 as a child life specialist and helped the Garners during Isaiah’s stay.
Ard is the only specialist in the life of children in hospital, working with children of all ages – including babies in the NICU – who are hospitalized for both short and long-term stays.
Introducing herself to the patients and their families, Ard explains that the main aspects of her job are teaching and playing. She helps children understand what’s happening around them and helps them find ways to enjoy themselves.
“I’m kind of a teacher because then the kids can make that connection, oh, I can ask her questions, or we’ll kind of teach them, like, do they want to know what an IV is, or do they have that coming up procedure, can we somehow discuss what an x-ray looks like or what [feeding] hoses are, or go through what their care plan is,” Ard said.
“And then I say my second part is we can do all the fun things. That’s why they really enjoy my job. I will ask them what they like to do at home or what their favorite activities are. And then we start thinking about it, oh, do you like basketball? Well we have a little basketball goal that we can bring or we have crafts or movies.”
Because Isaiah liked sports and competitions, she made him a bingo card with activities to get him out of bed and on foot.
“We had 16 squares and there were random things like visiting the aquarium or going to the end of the hall or having a dance party. Different things that would motivate him to get up and move by giving him a choice of what he could do if he could do it,” Ard said.
Whenever Isaiah got four boxes in a row, he won a prize, motivating him to finish the board quickly.
“He went from not being able to walk until the IV came out until he didn’t have to hold on to anything to walk, that really cheered him up and motivated him,” Garner said.
According to the University of Maryland Children’s Hospital, pediatric specialists help reduce the need for sedation and other pain management therapies in children and help children better accept medical treatments, allowing for high staff efficiency and lower medical costs.
Ard knows firsthand the impact of not having a child life program.
Ard’s father had a rare genetic brain disorder. While her father was undergoing treatments and surgeries, Ard and her brother were tested to see if they also had the condition.
Throughout the ordeal, Ard never had anyone to explain to her what was going on and make her feel more comfortable.
“It was very scary to see our dad go through that and then think, do I have to go through that too? Or I have a headache, why is this happening?”
Ard learned the importance of communicating with children undergoing medical treatments and being hospitalized, and helping them stay in control of frightening situations.
“So I always say the kid didn’t come to the hospital voluntarily,” Ard said. “But we can give them control, do you want to paint or play with it? Would you like to use the pink pen or the red pen and give them back control and that they have choices to make?
Over the next few months, Ard hopes to start sibling support groups so they too can understand why their siblings are being hospitalized and help them cope and cope with the hospitalization.
When Isaiah’s siblings came to visit, Ard explained the feeding tube he had, what it did, and why it was there. She also brought video games so they could play together.
“They made us feel welcome and put our worries at ease,” said Monique Garner.
Isaiah is now fully recovered. And while he’s missed flag football, he plans to compete in basketball this winter.
“We’re being very careful because we don’t want anyone stabbing him in the stomach, but we’re very grateful he has that option now,” she said.