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Growing Up: A Child Life Specialist's Story

Child Life specialist with patient

Not all heroes wear capes. These days their super suits consist of N95 masks and seven additional pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE). Many of our health care heroes have answered the call to go above and beyond, and they're doing it in style.

Marissa Stengel is one of those heroes. As a Child Life specialist, she helps children first get acquainted with the medical center and then helps them celebrate milestones throughout their health care journeys.

"I help patients understand what types of treatments happen at a hospital, why they are at Cook Children's and I explain it on their developmental level," she said. "If they have to go through a procedure, I help them learn about the procedure. We do a lot of education and emotional support. We try to help kids have a sense of normalcy in the hospital as often as possible."

But in March 2020, Marissa's job was anything but normal. Her floor, which originally supported Cook Children's gastrointestinal (GI) and renal patients, turned into an infectious disease isolation unit for the treatment of COVID-19 patients. Marissa's managers asked if she would be comfortable assisting these patients, and she knew she was up for the challenge.

Marissa's time in the COVID-19 unit helped her grow in her role as a Child Life specialist, as it introduced her to a broader range of patients.

"We would get patients with all different kinds of diagnoses. We would get cancer diagnoses, patients with diabetes or a patient who broke their arm and needed surgery. We would get my GI kiddos," Marissa said. "It was interesting and fun to have new and different patients on the floor. It encouraged me to learn more about them and also learn about different procedures."

Due to COVID-19 cases increasing throughout the area, Cook Children's had to update its visitor policy to allow only one caregiver per patient at the medical center during certain months. This helped to ensure a safer environment for patients, families and employees. For Marissa, the change made her role even more valuable.

"I would often stay in patient rooms, in my PPE, to keep the kiddos company until parents came back from work, or if parents needed to go outside to have a moment for themselves or to get fresh air," she said. "We also would tell parents that if they wanted to go home, they had that freedom to do so. We would encourage families and remind them that their child was being cared for and they wouldn't be alone. Especially because parents need to take care of themselves, too."

Like many of us, virtual resources became a part of Marissa's job. Because Child Life specialists often provide sibling support, Marissa talked to patient siblings through FaceTime. She would teach them about what their siblings were going through at the medical center.

Marissa said that the Child Life management team did an amazing job of frequently communicating with the specialists. There were times when they would receive new messaging or guidelines on how to provide patient care, and she is thankful they established an open-door policy for fluid communication.

As the world continues to battle COVID-19, Marissa and her team also will continue to provide the best care possible. In order to provide that level of care, they need the generous support of our communities for items like supplies and toys.

"Because our patients are in isolation, our toys are different on that floor," she said. "We give out toys that patients can take home. We go through toys quickly. Donations also support supplies so that we can clean things easily and efficiently. We want patients to play. Through play, we know children learn how to cope. They can better understand their procedure, and we use play to explain diagnoses. This also provides a sense of normalcy during their hospital stay."

"Through donations, we are able to help families who are on the isolation floor. They don’t have to feel disconnected or different from other patients or families just because of their situation."
—Marissa Stengel, Cook Children's Child Life specialist

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Your generosity does not go unnoticed by others. It is emulated by those who realize its value to the community. It is revered by those who care for our patients because it enables them to do what they do best. And it is appreciated by every patient and every family who benefits from it.

Thank you from each family, patient, nurse, physician and staff member whose life you will have touched with your generosity.