Child Life Month Alumni Spotlight: Laura

The College of Health and Human Performance is extremely grateful to Laura for her continuous support of the Child Life department. Laura recently pledged $1,000 to the Child Life scholarship pool as a part of ECU’s Annual Day of Giving, known as Pirate Nation Gives. Follow Laura’s lead and give your gift to the Child Life program on March 22 during Pirate Nation Gives! 

Name: Laura Mitchell
Degree & Graduation Year: BS in Child Development and Family Relations, majoring in Child Life, Class of 2000. Laura received her certified Child Life Specialist credential in the Fall of 2000.

How did you become interested in the Child Life field? 
While majoring in history and education at another college, I began volunteering in Child Life at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.  Spending that summer engaged in play activities with hospitalized patients and their families solidified a feeling I had had for some time.  Though I was interested in my major, I was not inspired by it.  My faltering academic performance was a symptom of the real problem.  I was not emotionally connected to the work. I took some time off to contemplate my options.  I continued volunteering and began my pivot to the study of Child Life. As one of the few universities with a Child Life program (at the time), East Carolina University seemed to be the perfect fit. Gaining admission as a transfer applicant from out of state was an entirely different matter.  Enter Dr. Charles Snow.  As the listed academic advisor for Child Life, I reached out to him to ask a logistical question.  Instead of providing a simple answer, he thoughtfully guided me through course selection for my associates degree in Psychology. He was my mentor and my champion before I was even an applicant, let alone a student at East Carolina.  He helped me turn an interest into a fulfilling career.

What were some of your favorite Child Life courses at ECU?
All of my courses with Dr. Snow, especially his class on hospitalized children, were incredibly valuable.  It was in his classes that I first began to understand “the why behind the what” of Child Life – how the work of developmental theorists informed our role and how current research should be used to both validate and improve our processes. As my academic advisor, Dr. Snow continued to provide support, encouragement and
advocacy.  I also loved my classes with Dr. Tribenbacher (Now known as Dr. Lookabaugh). Though the majority of her students were education majors, Dr. Tribenbacher was very purposeful about connecting all of her students to the material. Her classes were dynamic and engaging. Outside of my Child Life specific coursework, I remember thoroughly enjoying my class on Medical Anthropology.  

Describe your job/role/current employer? 
I am a certified Child Life Specialist at Nemours Children’s Health, Delaware where I have been with this organization for the past 22 years.  Though I began my career working in inpatient units, since 2012, I have been supporting patients and their families in Sedation, Day Medicine and Radiology. 
In addition to my employment, I am also currently the Chair of the Nursing and Allied Health Committee of Society for Pediatric Sedation

What is a typical day like for you?
On paper, a typical day would involve communicating with my multi-
disciplinary team (nurses, physicians, technologists) and reviewing the daily schedule to begin to assess and prioritize patient needs. Due to concurrent scheduling, it would be impossible to see every patient so my assessment process evaluates which patients (and by extension their families) might be at the highest risk of  difficulty coping. The goal is to promote an environment of Emotional Safety within the hospital setting. My clinical area is primarily procedure based, so my interventions can include pre-procedural education and procedural support. I also utilize play as distraction to help reduce anxiety during wait times. For example, if a school age patient was scheduled to have a urology procedure with moderate sedation in fluroscopy, I would first meet them to introduce my role and offer some play to build rapport. I would collaborate with the Sedation and Radiology Teams as well as the family to create an individualized teaching and coping plan. This could include utilizing non-threatening, developmentally appropriate language to help the patient understand the sensory experience associated with nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and let them know the sequence of events they would experience. I would accompany the patient, their family and the team to the radiology suite to provide emotional support (alternate focus, soothing speech/touch, rhythmic breathing, etc.) during the medication induction and the procedure itself. After this patient’s care was completed, I would re-visit the unit schedule to determine what was next. This cycle is repeated throughout the day, interspersed with documentation in the electronic medical record. In addition to their clinical work, Child Life Specialists have numerous indirect responsibilities. In my program, this includes co-coordinating the internship program, acting as documentation champion and sitting on several hospital and enterprise wide committees, just to name a few. 

What has been your favorite experience working in Child Life so far?
I have had a million favorite experiences doing this work.  My most recent favorite was when a mother of a patient with a chronic illness sent me a lovely thank you note, accompanied by a picture drawn by her daughter. But that’s not why it’s a favorite. What I loved, was the way she described my ongoing support.  She recognized that her daughter continued to get upset during  procedures, but she was grateful for the incremental progress. Too often, we are tempted to think of success as being defined by the “big” interventions or the ones that are neatly tied up in a bow. But it’s important to recognize that success will look different for every family.  Sometimes the things that we mistakenly consider small, can have the biggest impact. 

Where do you see the future of Child Life headed?
My hope is that the scope of our work will expand beyond the hospital and even beyond healthcare.  There are so many opportunities for Child Life Specialists to provide care in the community; to offer education and support in primary care settings, schools, the courts, funeral homes, etc. The list is endless. I even envision our role pivoting into adult care. Imagine, as an adult, having an advocate with you to help increase your health literacy and support and distract you during a procedure…doesn’t that sound wonderful?

What is the greatest challenge Child Life Specialists face?
My focus right now is on reducing the barriers associated with securing a Child Life internship. Currently, for a variety of reasons, there are far more students seeking internships than there are clinical placements available. I am hopeful that the new Internship Ready Common Application will be a strong first step in making this process more accessible.

What advice would you give to students who wish to enter this field? 
Whenever possible, seek out mentorship from Child Life Specialists in the field.  They can be an invaluable resource to helping you understand the joys and challenges associated with this work.