To the vibrant, excitable imaginations of children, the sanitary hallways of a hospital can be a foreign and frightening change of pace.
Take the example of a 3-year-old boy who had received a cochlear implant. Just through with an operation and far away from home, the child refused to communicate with his family using his native American Sign Language.
What do medical professionals do in such a situation to get a young patient responsive again?
Enter Miranda Morrow, certified Child Life Specialist at East Alabama Medical Center, on behalf of Auburn University.
Morrow is familiar with the deaf community, having lived with her father and sister who were hard of hearing. She is fluent in ASL.
Tasked with resolving the family’s conflict, she met with the boy and asked if he wanted to play with her. She promised him she could bring him whatever toys he had enjoyed playing with at home.
“I will never forget the look on his face,” Morrow said. “His eyes widened in awe and excitement as he immediately signed back to me, ‘trains and blocks.’ I brought back toy trains and blocks per his request, and he became a child again — laughing, smiling, giggling and playing.”
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Morrow doesn’t see her position as work, but as “a way of life which is intended for a unique set of individuals.”
As a child life specialist, she acts as a therapist of sorts to children in the medical center, increasing their comfort through friendly language and joking with them during procedures.
“Many patients often describe a child life specialist’s role as a ‘teacher of the hospital,’ as we have knowledge regarding medical terminology and procedures,” Morrow said. “We are then able to communicate back to the child in developmentally appropriate terms based on his or her specific developmental age and cognitive level.”
EAMC and the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Auburn launched the Child Life Program in 2016 as a way of providing a local opportunity for child life students to get real-world experience.
The partnership is special because such programs are usually only available to hospitals in larger cities or those specializing in pediatric care, Morrow said.
More community-based hospitals like EAMC have begun introducing these programs into their facilities as they have proven their value, Morrow said.
Morrow demonstrated just that in March in the wake of the tornadoes that devastated parts of Lee County.
Many of the patients who were rushed to the hospital after the disaster were young children, some of whom had lost close family members. Morrow called the scene “surreal.”
It was Morrow’s job to care for those children. One way she did so was “gently explaining to children that mom or dad were no longer with us,” Morrow said.
She also provided children and families ways to cope.
“Being each child’s rock amidst tragedy and devastation — that’s the core reason of what I do, and I wouldn’t change it for the world,” Morrow said.
But, she added that strength and unity, total teamwork and an unspoken understanding within their disciplinary medical team was extremely important.
Morrow first began thinking about a career as a child life specialist in the midst of a family medical emergency, her niece Charlee Rae’s diagnosis with Hurler syndrome, a serious genetic disorder that can cause organ damage.
Spending 10 months at Duke University Children’s Hospital, Morrow was impressed by the specialists she witnessed interacting with Charlee Rae and the improvement to her situation.
“I saw firsthand the crucial role that my niece’s child life specialist played in her overall coping and positive adjustment to extensive hospitalization,” she said. “Through her experience, I immediately knew I wanted to change career paths because I had just found my true passion in life as I love working with children in a one-to-one ratio in the medical setting.”
She surveyed her options for child life educational programs throughout the country before deciding on Auburn.
“Everything the Auburn Creed encompasses is within me,” Morrow said. “As I enjoy a challenge, my eagerness to blaze a trail for a certified child life specialist position in an environment where theory and concepts for our practice are new was the most appealing part of my application.”
Since beginning her tenure as a specialist, many of Morrow’s patients have cheerfully exclaimed to her they wanted to become a doctor or nurse themselves. Many mistakenly see her as their nurse, but she said they know she’s meant to be the “fun one.”
“My all-time favorite was when one of my children referred to me as ‘the Mary Poppins lady,’” Morrow said. “It is in moments such as these that I know I have played my role well and can’t help but smile.”
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