Phoenix Children’s Hospital child life specialists help ease pain for young patients, their families

Vivian Johnson coos in her crib and nods her head as her mother, Lisa Johnson, sings her “Happy Birthday.” She celebrated her first birthday in a small hospital room.

Gigi Elliott, a child life specialist, stands on the other side of the crib, also singing and playing with Vivian.

Child life specialists like Elliott work to help children cope with the challenges of being in a hospital, providing support for the child through play and learning.

Betsy Rosebrugh, manager of the Child Life program at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, said health care professionals must take the developmental and psychosocial needs of pediatric patients into account – and that’s where the child life specialists come in.

“We’re trying to look at the whole child,” Rosebrugh said. “It is important that a child, when they’re in the hospital, not only be addressed medically, but they also have other needs.”

Nationally, there are 5,202 certified child life specialists who hold the credential, according to the Child Life Council, a nonprofit association. However, that does not mean they all work as child life specialists.

Child life programs not only support patients, they also help their families.

Vivian, born with heart complications, was diagnosed eight weeks ago with cardiac failure. Her two siblings, Savannah and Blake, also have called Phoenix Children’s Hospital home while their sister waits for a new heart.

“(Vivian is) on high priority for a heart transplant, and she has to remain inpatient because of the severity of her heart and the (intravenous medication) that she needs to get her to a transplant,” Vivian’s mother said.

Once the family found out about Vivian’s condition, even the most simple aspects of their lives changed.

“It’s been hard,” Lisa Johnson said. “It tossed us into this environment super fast, and we had to pull our children from their day-to-day routines.”

Vivian’s mother calls Elliott, the child life specialist on their floor, a life saver for helping the family get through this tough time.

It is not just play, child life specialists help the children and their siblings understand the medical components as well.

“It’s important for her 6-year-old sister to understand why Vivian needs a new heart,” Elliott said. “We hear her say all the time, ‘I’m excited for my sister to come home and come home with a new heart,’ but she also has questions.”

As she played with Nolan Nikolic-Dzaka, an asthma patient, child life specialist Eydie Fernandez said her favorite part about her job is helping the child forget they’re in a hospital.

“They forget they’re in this scary place,” Fernandez said as Nolan played with a Mr. Potato Head toy. “You just see all that in their facial expressions.”

For Emilija Nikolic, Nolan’s mother, having a child in the hospital is not something she expected, but she appreciates the people trying to make the situation better.

“Oh, they (were) wonderful, they (were) coming in every few hours checking on him,” Nikolic said as she wiped tears from her eyes. “They come around every day, and they offer us toys to make sure he has a fun time, to forget that he’s in the hospital.”

At the end of the day, child life specialists want children like Vivian and Nolan to go home healthy, knowing they’ll always have a friend at the hospital.

For Lisa Johnson, Vivian’s mother, she hopes her children leave the hospital with something more.

“I hope they can have an experience they can look back on and say, ‘Mom, we learned a lot,’” she said. “We had a lot of help for our family.”