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Child Life Program Celebrates Ten Years of Helping Children & Families

Posted by Elisabeth Jakab on November 23, 2011

A child life specialist works with a hospitalized boy

"I used to be a clown with the Big Apple Circus Support Unit."

That’s how Jon Luongo describes what led him to pursue a career as a child life specialist. “We worked with kids in hospitals two or three times a week. I wanted to do more, and got my masters in Child Life at Bank Street.”

Luongo, a 2005 graduate who works at Brooklyn’s Maimonides Infants and Children’s Hospital, was one of many fellow graduates at Bank Street on November 14, along with students and current and former Child Life faculty, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Child Life masters program. Initiated in the late 1980s as a concentration of courses within the Special Education program founded and chaired by the late and renowned Elsbeth Pfeiffer, Child Life became an official masters program in 2001. 

At the reunion, current and former Child Life students and faculty talked about about their successes, their challenges, and the many extraordinary moments they’ve had in their profession.

Rather than focusing on classroom teaching, child life specialists work in hospitals and healthcare settings to aid and advocate for children facing often overwhelming medical circumstances. Specialists receive medical training and form part of multidisciplinary healthcare teams, providing comfort and information to both children and families. Luongo noted that the American Academy of Pediatrics Hospital Committee stipulates that “child life services should be considered an essential component of quality pediatric healthcare.”

One of Luongo’s responsibilities is preparing children for cancer radiation or diagnostic tests. Recently, for example, a six-year-old girl arrived with her doll for an MRI. Kids are often sedated for these procedures because it is hard for them to hold still. The girl’s parents feared the effects of the anesthesia, so she was to receive no sedation.

“To get her to hold still was all about alleviating fear and stress,” says Luongo. So he helped her to understand the procedure by playing “doctor” with a miniature model of an MRI machine. Together, they told the small “patient”—the girl’s doll—that it would lie on a table that moved, and hear strange sounds like a woodpecker and a jackhammer.

Luongo also told the girl, who was of Russian descent, a Russian fairy tale called “Vasilysa the Beautiful.” “The child was very like Vasilysa,” Luongo says. “She too had a heroic journey to make, and a wise doll that did things for her. It was like her own doll, who took the MRI.” After the MRI, the girl told her grateful and relieved mother how wonderful the process was.

Therapeutic play—combining child development and play—is a cornerstone of the Child Life program, and Luongo applies those lessons to his work every day. “Our techniques are child-centered, so the child sets the agenda by playing ‘doctor.’” He added that he also teaches doctors how to interact with children and put them at ease.

“Parents are a big part of the equation,” says Lori Lerma ’08, who works in a trauma unit at the NYU Langone Medical Center and is a recipient of an Elsbeth Pfeiffer scholarship. When a five-year-old girl with facial lacerations and body scratches came in, both mother and child were crying and upset. “I took the mother aside and told her that if she relaxed, the child would too,” she says. Lerma explained what the doctor would do, gave the girl bubbles to blow and a princess sticker, and played a movie to distract her as the doctor worked. Both mother and child were smiling afterwards.

Deb Vilas, Virginia Roach, Troy Pinkney-Ragsdale, and Lori Lerma

Photo: Deb Vilas, Virginia Roach, Troy Pinkney-Ragsdale, and Lori Lerma at the Child Life Reunion on November 14, 2011.

But not all patients recover. Susan Woytasik, who worked with Pfeiffer in the late 1980s, tells of a four-year-old girl with kidney cancer who endured a long course of treatment. The child life worker interacted with the mother, who was often unable to visit, and wrote her letters dictated by the child. After the girl died, the grieving mother kept visiting the hospital for months to see the people who had known her child so closely for so long.

“A big part of child life work is grief counseling,” says Woytasik. “Also, the toll on people working with children who have cancer is very emotionally demanding. They need to take care of themselves too.”

Program Director Troy Pinkney-Ragsdale spoke to the assembled guests about the program’s success over the past ten years, and praised its participants: “You guys are the rock stars!” She presented bouquets to the program’s founding advisers: Adine Usher, director of the original concentration of courses; Patricia Weiner, the masters program’s first director; and to Deb Vilas, who joined Usher and Weiner in their start-up endeavors. 

After the presentation, Vilas urged everyone into the auditorium for a special Q&A session on therapeutic play techniques with Garry Landreth, a renowned child life expert. As people filed in, they passed a special exhibit of artwork by children with cancer. A striking 3’x3’ painting, “8 heads are better than 6,” created by a seven-year-old, depicted an amoeba-like monster with three of its eight heads made of CAT scans of the child’s head. 

“Those are the monsters we’re fighting,” said a student as she went by. 

Faculty, students, and alumni at the Child Life Reunion

Photo: Faculty, students, and alumni at the Child Life Reunion

tagged: child life, deb vilas, troy pinkney-ragsdale