Behind The Scenes

    Release Date: October 1, 2013

the beach

Melody Duncan and Julia Palladino are child life specialists at the Stollery who spend a lot of their time at The Beach, a playroom that helps minimize stress in the hospital’s patients. (Photo by Curtis Trent).

An operating room used to be called an operating theatre. And, on that stage, and throughout the hospital, the doctors are the stars of the show. But there are countless people and departments that work behind the scenes, supporting doctors and making it possible to provide patient care of the highest quality. Without these people, the show – or the hospital care, in this case – could not go on. 

One of the big events kids face at the Stollery is a trip to the operating room for surgery. And an integral part of the behind-the-scenes team at the Stollery includes clinical nurse educators like Lorraine Willox. Nurse educators work in different departments, providing education to nursing staff, but Lorraine’s focus is education for the operating room.

Lorraine orients new staff and provides continuing education for exist- ing staff, as well as acting as an informal resource for the nurses. She pro- vides troubleshooting on everything from computer issues to questions about guardianship and consent. “Nurses don’t have the time, because there’s pressure to get the cases done, to give quality care and to be with the patient. With a lot of that administrative stuff or troubleshooting stuff, they can involve me and we can get it processed quickly,” she says.

But, Lorraine doesn’t just work in education. She also works directly with the young patients and sees firsthand how stressful the experience can be for them and their parents. So part of what Lorraine and other nurses do is take care of parents, too. “We often have to care for them as well and make sure they’re okay, so that as soon as possible we can get them back with their child. Because they’re the best child caregivers – they’re the experts, they know their child, and we rely on them.”

Whether or not they have had surgery and directly or indirectly benefitted from Lorraine’s care, some kids remain at the hospital for extended stays. For these kids, Melody Duncan and Julia Palladino become important parts of their care team.

These two women are another part of that support team at the Stollery. They don’t perform surgeries or administer medications, but their job is important. As child life specialists, they educate, prepare, and provide support for children of all ages and – as is the case with Lorraine – support their families during their hospital stay.

A large part of helping kids cope takes place at The Beach, a playroom on the fourth floor of the Stollery. A destination at the hospital for 10 years, it’s decorated with beach scenes and filled with toys for children to play with, from an air hockey table to a sandbox. “It’s an open-ended play area where children of all ages can participate in a variety of experi- ences,” explains Julia. “Playing is an important part of a child’s life; it can help minimize the stress and anxiety that can be associated with being in the hospital.”

At The Beach, Julia and Melody try to alleviate some of stress in the young patients by running programs at the facility when children have some time away from the doctors and nurses. They often host special events, such as having the Edmonton Oilers or the Disney Princesses come in to visit the children. They plan parties and special activities once a month, and have a family bingo night every Wednesday. Every weekday between 9:30-11:30 am and 1:30-3:30 pm, children are wel- come to come to The Beach and play. While some of the daily play is themed, for the most part, it’s intentionally left open-ended. “When children come to the hospital, control gets taken away from them. They don’t have choices – they have to take their medicine, they have to do this test, or that procedure,” Melody says. “Here at The Beach, we try to let the children have choice and control over the types of play activities. The goal is to build a child’s self-confidence, mastery and autonomy.”

And because nurses and doctors are often busy treating their patients, The Beach can fill the gaps. Kids come here to learn about any proced- ures they’ve experienced. There’s a medical play area, complete with a child-sized doll on a miniature hospital bed and toy medical equip- ment. “Children can talk about or play through the things that have happened to them at the hospital, like if they’ve had surgery or if they had to have pokes, a nose tube or any of those things.” Melody says. “We can assess and make sure they’re understanding what’s happening to them.” Doctors are not allowed and no medical procedures can take place here so it also provides a safe space.

The Beach is the only playroom that’s staffed in the hospital, and because it’s staffed, it gives the child life specialists the chance to interact with the children on a daily basis and informally assess them in a group setting. There are also child life specialists on all the in-patient units that collaborate with the rest of the medical teams to share important information. The child life specialists agree that, in a natural setting for a child like The Beach, children may feel more comfortable expressing their feelings, fears and any misconceptions of their personal experi- ences within the hospital.

For Julia and Melody, building relationships with parents and pro- viding support to them, so that they can in turn provide support for their child, is something they think is important to helping the whole family cope. That’s why The Beach provides a space for parents too. “It’s a place for parents to come and relax a little bit, see their child doing some of the normal things and network with other families,” Melody says “It can be a real source of support.”

As with Lorraine Willox’s work caring for surgical patients and adding value to the team, Julia and Melody’s work adds up to less stress for parents and better care for patients – something all members of the team at the Stollery take very seriously. “These parents are handing over the centre of their universe to a virtual stranger, who they know intui- tively is going to hurt them – to make them better – but ultimately, surgery means a stranger is going to be cutting into their body,” Lorraine says. “And that’s an awesome responsibility, and for them to have that trust in us. It’s something that we don’t take lightly.”

Child life specialists and nurse educators aren’t the only unsung heroes of the Stollery. There are many different departments – from social workers to psychologists to physiotherapists to doctors and nurses – whose combined efforts provide care for the children. “We work together as part of the whole team – we all work to help that child in whatever capacity that’s needed,” Melody says.

It’s programs like The Beach, and people like Julia, Melody and Lorraine that make the difference for families at the Stollery. They may not be providing direct medical treatment, but what they do makes a difference. 

Written by Alexandria Eldridge.

Originally published in the Summer 2013 Issue of HEROES Magazine.