California Forum

Easing the trauma of an infant’s illness

June Pollock spent 12 days at UC Davis Medical Center.
June Pollock spent 12 days at UC Davis Medical Center. Kent Pollock

When young Wilson and Henry Pollock visited their 10-week-old sister at UC Davis Children's Hospital last month, they were frightened and desperate to understand why little June threw up and why her eyes no longer sparkled. I shared that fear.

To visit my infant granddaughter, my grandsons had to go to a locked floor and clean their hands with anti-bacterial soap before entering her room. There, June slept in a plastic enclosure on a crib with plastic curtains. She was hooked up to tubes, which were attached to scary-looking contraptions with flashing lights and beeping sounds.

They were shaken. We all were.

Amanda Trapp, whose title is child life specialist, came to our rescue. I had never heard of such a person. And no one should want to have to make such an acquaintance, but Amanda was exactly what the boys needed.

The health care debate rages over treatment approaches and costs, and out-of-touch politicians simplify complex economic and medical considerations. It is easy to forget that some things work extremely well in the health care system – in this case for the infant patient and her entire traumatized family.

Trapp, a vivacious young woman with a knack for communicating with children, dropped to her knees to talk eye-to-eye with Wilson, 8, and Henry, 5, about their sister’s virus and how she would overcome it. June will be OK, she told them, as soon as the bad things that are making her sick are flushed out of her body.

Wilson worried that the IV tube was hurting June’s arm. Trapp showed the boys how the IV works by demonstrating on the stuffed bears she had given them. They each then used a syringe to pump medicine (water) into the bears. Days later, when the boys saw an IV tube in their sister’s head, they were more curious than scared.

“We felt the end of an IV and it’s not like a needle. It’s just like a little tube,” Wilson recalled.

Trapp became the boys’ friend and companion, answering their questions, always in eye-level conversations. She took them to an arts-and-crafts room. She chatted with them about school, gave them goodies and coloring books featuring hospital scenes.

“She was a counselor, a psychologist, a friend or whatever you needed,” Will, the boys’ father and my son, said.

“She made June’s hospitalization much less scary for the boys, and much more acceptable,” said their mother, Erin.

Most Sacramento-area hospitals provide similar services, but one of the largest programs is at UC Davis Medical Center, which has child life specialist services for patients under 18 throughout their hospitalization.

“We want to help them feel somewhat empowered by a full understanding of their care,” said Child Life Manager Diana Sundberg, who has helped grow the program during the past 15 years. “We hope to give them an opportunity to gain back some control of their situation through knowledge.”

Patients’ family members share the focus of child life specialists, who see the whole family as being in need of attention.

“June still needed me to comfort her and reassure her. … That made me feel so much more useful. Amanda sat down next to me, told me everything was going to be all right … maintained eye contact with me, rubbing my back,” said Erin, who stayed at the hospital day and night.

As I marveled at Amanda, others told me about acts of compassion by her counterparts. When leukemia caused 3-year-old Lily Chiquet to need her first infusion through a port in her chest, she cried and flatly refused to cooperate.

“Then they explained things to her so she could understand better, and now she doesn’t mind at all. In fact, she helps,” said her mother, Michelle. “Honestly, I wouldn’t have known what to do without their help.”

At the infusion center, where patients receive chemotherapy or transfusions, child life specialist Ellen Meuchel knelt in front of 5-year-old Fabian Corona, who sat in an infusion chair about four times his size and endured weekly treatment that combats his leukemia.

To explain leukemia to Fabian, Meuchel prepared “blood soup” and illustrated the difference between healthy blood and leukemia blood. She used Karo syrup to symbolize plasma. Red licorice was red blood cells, marshmallows were white blood cells, and Lemonheads were platelets. The leukemia blood also has lots of M&Ms that get in the way of the normal components’ functions.

“That’s awesome,” exclaimed Fabian with a smile.

Meuchel believes her profession is the greatest job in the world: “I try to help them understand. It helps because a lot of kids will imagine things that are a lot worse than what’s really happening.”

Her fondest part is seeing progress: “Kids go from being terrified to having a little bit of understanding to actually getting comfortable and then getting back to being themselves.”

Illness doesn’t take holidays. But the hospital and child life specialists help children maintain normalcy with celebration. On Halloween, despite being off work, people from departments throughout the hospital transformed the children’s ward broom closets, storage rooms and other non-patient areas into decorated fun places where stuffed toys and other goodies were passed out.

Every available room became a trick-or-treat opportunity for kids, most of whom were tethered to IV trailers or in wheelchairs. They smiled, as did worried siblings and, yes, grandpas. A 6-year-old beamed when she won the costume prize, having dressed up as Superwoman, although chemotherapy left her with no hair and pale skin.

In Erin’s arms, with her IV trailer in tow, June was dressed in a Cinderella costume provided by the child life specialists. After 12 nights in the hospital, Erin and Will brought her home.

Today, she plays with her brothers, smiles a lot and is gaining weight. I asked the brothers what they would say to Amanda Trapp if she was chatting with them today.

“Thank you for helping us know better about June,” Wilson replied.

Hospitalization traumatizes all family members, including grandparents. If a healthy family attitude helps patients heal, then this holistic approach is invaluable to all. This will be a special Christmas for the Pollock family, thanks to the folks at UC Davis Medical Center.

June’s eyes are sparkling again.

Kent Pollock is a retired journalist, journalism professor and former editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He lives in Folsom, not far from his grandchildren.