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It’s All About the Kids: Child Life Services at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh

Early in her career, a parent of a critically ill child in the hospital told Stephanie Colaberardino, “As a mom, I stop breathing for a few seconds every time there’s a knock on the hospital room door. When it’s someone from Child Life, I exhale. I know that for a little while at least, it’s only going to be good.”

Today, Colaberardino leads the Child Life Department at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. That parent’s comment has stayed with her; it underscores the impact that the work of the Child Life team can have on patients and their families.

“Child Life’s purpose is to help families cope with hospitalization, illness, diagnoses and procedures. We try to empower kids to participate in their whole healthcare experience,” Colaberardino explained.

Helping Patients Through Education and Creativity

Through education, play and developmentally appropriate explanations of whatever the child is facing, Child Life professionals work in concert with the medical staff to provide the best experience for each patient and family.

Kory Antonacci, program coordinator of Creative and Expressive Arts Therapy (CEAT), leads the group that provides music and art therapy and other artistic outlets for children who are inpatients at the hospital.

“Our goal is to help children express themselves emotionally, to make meaning of their experiences and to help them tell their stories,” Antonacci said. “The beauty of creative arts therapies in a pediatric hospital is that we have all of these outstanding medical professionals to treat the body, and then my group works to also treat the heart and soul.”

Ensuring that children have positive experiences at the hospital is important on many fronts, Colaberardino said. In the moment, support from a Child Life specialist can decrease a child’s anxiety, help them accept their medical treatment and help them cope with illness or injury—often resulting in shorter hospital stays. Child Life services can also have long-term effects.

“The patient experience is so important to us,” Colaberardino said. “We are aware that what we do can have an impact on patients for the rest of their lives. Even if it’s just an ER visit, we want it to be positive—it can make someone more likely to seek treatment the next time they need help, even as an adult.”

“If a three-year-old’s memory of the hospital is singing a song, or dancing or doing something in our theater—rather than fear or pain—that’s a benefit we can offer,” added Antonacci.

Investing in the Tools of the Trade

The Child Life Department has a variety of resources at its disposal to help patients cope. In addition to specialists and assistants, music therapists and art therapists, Child Life also includes a “pet friend” program where children can pet and cuddle a furry canine visitor. Children also have access to a library; movies and cool interactive toys; a teen lounge; special events like bingo and holiday parties; tutoring for school-age children facing longer hospital stays; and medical-free activity centers within the hospital.

UPMC Children’s Hospital recently invested significant resources into areas focused on healing the whole child. In 2019, they opened the Nora Grace Kaufman Center for Creative Arts Therapy. The bright, open space houses a piano, drums, guitars and recording equipment. A separate theater offers kids a performance space, complete with a stage, microphones, ballet barre and wall of mirrors. A private art therapy room includes a colorful array of paints, markers, pastels and other artistic implements. The Creation Station has a pottery nook, digital design center and virtual reality painting technology—plus space for art classes. Traveling art carts bring art supplies to kids who are confined to their rooms.

In 2020, the hospital unveiled its Dream Big Studio, an independent TV and radio station funded completely by private donations. The timing, explained Colaberardino, could not have been better.

“Dream Big Studio opened in January, and then COVID hit. It was so hard to watch so much of our programming shut down and go dark—and then I looked over and saw this incredible studio,” Colaberardino said.

The impetus for the studio was to try to reach kids bound to their beds, who were unable to participate in group programs and that might be feeling isolated.

“At the beginning, a lot of people didn’t get why we were building this studio,” said Colaberardino. “Because of the pandemic, it has become a resource for everyone. People get it now. Kids are staying connected, even as they have to remain in their rooms.”

Dream Big Studio currently offers three live shows a day, in addition to prerecorded content that runs on a 24/7 loop. Kids create the content and can co-host a show on a topic of their choosing. Game shows, cooking classes and even makerspace programming round out the broadcasts.

“Bingo is the biggest hit!” Colaberardino said.

Typically, between two and 25 kids call in daily from their rooms to play bingo on TV. Prizes are delivered via a mobile cart. Kids are talking with each other and interacting with their peers in the hospital—something that had been difficult to accomplish before the studio existed.

Another serendipitous outcome is the way Dream Big Studio has engaged the staff.

“People are here at UPMC Children’s Hospital specifically because they want to help kids,” Colaberardino explained, “but not everyone gets to work directly with patients.”

Since the studio opened, staff have been able to engage in new ways. Hospital dieticians have utilized Dream Big Studio to offer cooking classes for the children. The shows are a hit with kids, and staff feel good about being able to use their gifts to assist patients.

It’s All About the Kids

Patient feedback suggests that these efforts have had a significant impact.

“Before I went into the hospital, I was apprehensive,” said 13-year-old Patrick, a patient who spent almost two weeks at UPMC Children’s Hospital. “I didn’t know what it would be like.”

During his hospital stay, the Child Life team found out that Patrick liked music.

“Kory loaned me a keyboard so I could mess around, and she taught me some chords,” Patrick said. “Practicing was a really great way to pass the time—most of my tests only took a little while, and I had to be awake 20 hours a day. I was excited to show her what I had learned.”

Patrick’s parents recalled watching Patrick and Antonacci belt out Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ together as one of the highlights of a challenging time. Patrick said receiving support from the Child Life staff helped.

“I was definitely happier. It gave me something to think about other than medical stuff,” Patrick explained.

Ultimately, helping kids is the goal for everything that happens at UPMC Children’s Hospital. While some of the best medical professionals in the country address medical needs, the Child Life staff helps kids survive in a different way.

The mother of a multi-organ transplant patient summed it up best. After three months in the hospital, on the day she was discharged, her mother told Antonacci, “These transplants kept her body alive, but music and art therapy saved her life.”

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