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May 2nd, 2017

Taking the Fear out of the Hospital, With Furry Friends and Fun

By In the Loop

Child life specialists at Mayo Clinic Children's Center use play for a serious purpose. They normalize the medical environment through developmentally appropriate play.

It may look like Amy K. Olson's job is all fun and games. Her 9-to-5 routine includes activities like playing bingo, bandaging dolls and leading crazy "crafternoons." But for Olson, a child life specialist at Mayo Clinic Children's Center, all that play has a serious purpose. "Our job in child life is to provide education to kids and their families and to help kids cope with what's happening to them," Olson says. The goal, she tells us, is "for kids not to be scared of the hospital."

That's a tall order. After all, medical tests and procedures can be frightening even for adults. For children, the medical equipment, processes and staff often represent a new world they don't understand. A big part of a child life specialist's job is to introduce children to that world. And one of the best ways to do that, Olson says, is "to normalize the medical environment through developmentally appropriate play." Which is why you'll often find her teaching her young charges how to give their dolls, teddy bears or other stuffed friends an X-ray or immunization. Or, how to prepare for surgery.

Olson has a special toolkit to help on that last front: a "prep kit" containing a miniature surgical mask, hospital gown and the medical equipment the young patient will encounter. The gowns, made by the loving hands of Mayo Clinic volunteers, come in variety of kid-friendly fabrics to choose from. "One of the best ways to get kids engaged in medical play is to teach them what's going to happen, and then have them practice that on their doll or stuffed animal," Olson, a former elementary and middle school teacher, says. "Sometimes they like to practice on one of their parents."

Olson and her colleagues talk with kids about what they'll see, hear and experience during surgery. The kids have a chance to ask questions and work through the fears they may have. When it's go-time, kids can take their dolls or furry friends with them. "Our health unit coordinators print out a separate hospital bracelet and the teddy bear goes right down to the OR," Olson says. "Our entire staff plays along with it." That includes newly minted surgeons, who are sometimes called on for bear repair. "If a child's stuffed animal has a tear or hole, we send it to the surgery residents to stitch up." The toy comes back with its own medical report, including post-surgery instructions.

Olson and her colleagues coordinate other activities to help kids be kids in the hospital, including those bingo games, music programs and visits from Caring Canines and their volunteer handlers. All efforts, Olson says, are designed to help kids leave the hospital with some positive memories. "It's so great to see kids lose their anxiety and start to relax, and to go from a place of uncertainty to hugging their doctors," she says. "I have the best job in the world."

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Tags: Amy K. Olson, Caring Canines, Child Life Specialist, Employee Stories, Mayo Clinic Children's Center, Mayo Clinic Volunteer Services

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