Children who need operations or hospitalization often do not understand what is happening to them.
Cara Sisk, director of the new child life program at Tennessee Tech University, is trying to help those children by teaching TTU students how to work with children in hospitals and explain to them what is happening age appropriately.
“Child Life is the profession of people who want to help children and teens in hospitals maintain normal development and cope with the stress of the hospital, and then educationally and emotionally prepare them about what’s happening in the hospital,” said Sisk, who worked at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., for 11 years.
The program, which started this fall, is an option within the child development and family relations major in the university’s School of Human Ecology. Already at least five students have declared it as part of their major.
Approximately 40 universities across the country have child life programs; TTU’s is the first for undergraduates in Tennessee, according to a directory maintained by the accrediting agency Child Life Council.
Child life specialists do things to make hospital stays less stressful for children, including pre-surgical tours, medical and therapeutic play and child-friendly explanations of what will happen during any procedures or operations.
To help with the explanations, Sisk used a Medikin doll when working at St. Jude’s. The dolls have attachments and removable parts so children can run intravenous tubes up a doll’s arm or even remove tumors from its brain. One of the dolls, and a large plastic tub of parts for it, is stashed in Sisk’s newly painted yellow office for her students to work with as well.
There is only one child life class at TTU so far, but Sisk said she plans to add one more every semester until there are five. These courses will consist of child life theory and practice, principles for working with children in healthcare and aspects of being a professional member of the healthcare team. The ultimate goals for the program are to develop exceptional child life specialists and to prepare students to take the certification exam for child life professionals.
Sisk is used to starting things; she was the first child life specialist to be hired in St. Jude’s child life department. When she left, there were more than 15 specialists. The field took off in the 1980s and more hospitals have hired child life specialists over the years.
“I like to start things. It’s fun,” Sisk said. “I am excited to be creating the child life program and thankful to TTU for bringing the profession to the students. There are lots of children’s hospitals with child life programs and I think the job market is competitive.”