The Child Life Maker Movement: Loose Parts Impacting Healthcare


What happens when you cross a child life specialist with loose parts? Creativity, to say the very least. Specialists have been using loose parts to make the medical world more accessible and friendly for children and families since the beginning of our profession. They combine medical supplies (tubing, gauze, rubber gloves) and household items (paper towel rolls, pipe cleaners, paper clips, felt) to create everything from customized dolls that reflect a child’s medical situation, to a glove-o-phone to help children pass breathing tests. Simple and complex inventions have aided children in making meaning out of their medical experiences.



Now, with the Maker Movement, child life specialists have invaluable opportunities to join brains with other disciplines seeking to improve patient experience and speed recovery.   Bank Street College Child Life alumnae Jon Luongo and Kelly Segar, and children’s book author Anastasia Higginbotham rolled up their sleeves to join the Maker Faire at The New York Hall of Science this past weekend. They joined nurses, doctors, medical technicians and fellow inventors in the Health Maker tent on this brisk and cloudy autumn day.

As children and caregivers meandered through the exhibits, .the specialists shared information about how to make pediatric hospital stays more manageable, less stressful, and more fun. As Jon demonstrated the glove-o-phone, kids jumped at the unexpectedly loud honk it made.



Exclamations of “Ewww gross!” were followed by attentive curiosity as Jon explained the purpose of the vial of “blood soup” on the table.



Families spontaneously grabbed colorful neon strings and engaged in string play, a simple game that crosses generations, culture and language around the world.


Kelly demonstrated her Barium Bear, “Barry”, developed to support children receiving barium enemas and scans. She used simple circuitry that she learned from a Hospital Play Specialist in Japan to illuminate the pretend scan.



At nearby tables, radiation techs and doctors showcased how legos can be used to build mini MRI, CT-Scan, and linear accelerator machines. When they are doll sized, they aren’t quite so scary. And when children aren’t as frightened, doctors can administer less anesthesia to their tiny patients, a win-win for everyone.


Did you know that a A three-D printer can be used to make prosthetic hands for children who have lost theirs to birth defects, disease or accidents? And for a fraction of the cost of traditional prosthetics. And they aren’t just your run of the mill hands either. They are superhero hands! As I observed a three-D printer humming away at one exhibit, I wondered about what kind of mind came up with the idea of this machine. And then who had the amazing idea about the possible application of it in the medical world?


Wonderful ideas start somewhere, and when we encourage children to explore and create, even in the medical environment, we are investing in their healing and in their future. The Maker Faire was an extraordinary celebration of the possibilities of the human brain. From low-tech to high-tech, creative minds came together in the Health Lab tent to hack medical problems and make the healing process more fun. If you want to get your maker on, I encourage you to find maker spaces near you Challenge your child life staff to a loose parts contest at the next departmental meeting. Jumpstart a health maker group in your hospital and invite staff from throughout the institution to collaborate. And don’t forget your best assets. Find every opportunity to include children in creative problem solving with loose parts. In and out of the healthcare field, children and adults all benefit when we connect with what Eleanor Duckworth called “wonderful ideas.”













How We Helped Our Kids Cope with a Pet Loss — Child Life Mommy

He was 13 years old, or at least that was our guess. We rescued our feisty French bulldog, Bugz, 11 years ago and he instantly became a family member. He was there for our milestones of marriage, career change, new home and children. He had some challenging quirks to him caused from an abusive past, […]

via How We Helped Our Kids Cope with a Pet Loss — Child Life Mommy

Doll Ambassadors: Providing Comfort to Kids with Cancer


Guest Blogger: Rosanna Bernstein – Founder of Bee Brave Buddies

When I had cancer and was going through chemotherapy, a white, curly haired stuffed poodle that one of my daughters gave me sat right on the pillow next to me at all times. I named her Gigi. Just looking at the quirky turned-up smile on this puppy`s face always gave me a feeling of comfort and made me smile.

I was diagnosed with Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia in 1998. I was in treatment for 3 years and was becoming sicker. A trial in its second phase for a new chemotherapy medication, specific for CML, now called Gleevec, was in its early stages at that time.  I was eventually accepted into this trial, and within several months I went into a remission. This chemotherapy was one of the first magic bullets, a medication targeted to treat the specific genetic mutation.  Although I still take a chemotherapy pill each evening, I have been so fortunate to be healthy and in remission to this day.

I was so grateful, that I decided I wanted to help others.

Through the years I have had several businesses: Yummy Gram, a gourmet basket company, Rosanna Hope Designs, a millinery and hand bag design company and Baby Bonbons, an online shop with vintage lace children`s clothing designs and accessories. During this time, I designed many original designs for baby blankets and matching pillows for the Baby Bonbons shop. I have always had a passion for art, beautiful laces and fabrics.

But, puppy Gigi always lurked in the back of my mind. I could still see that funny little face, and I got a warm feeling each time I thought about Gigi. I remember the soothing, inner peace I felt snuggling her. This feeling gave me the idea to combine my love of art and design with my desire to give back.

I combined my love for fabric and my whimsical children’s digital art drawings to design my original three Bee Brave Buddies dolls: Buddy Brave, a superhero doll for boys with magical powers, his twin sister, Bestie Brave, a superhero doll for girls, who is a true new best friend, and Catie Cuddles, a doll dressed in fancy lace who loves to cuddle and snuggle. I hope to use this same art process to design a line of Bee Brave Buddies Adventure books and other gifts for children.

My dolls were designed to become a new best friend to children who are in treatment for cancer or other childhood illnesses and who need a big snuggle and some magical secret powers to be brave. The three dolls are designed with beautiful bald heads. The girl dolls have special words printed on their long leggings: giggle, snuggle, love, dream, brave, cuddle, smile, laugh, hugs, play, dream, hope.

The dolls are also educational. An adult with cancer can use the dolls to explain hair loss and other treatments that children will face. Each doll comes with a matching hat or headband and the superheroes come with silky minky capes. The dolls have very soft plush pillow bodies to hug and love. Each doll comes in Caucasian or African American descent. Our dolls are printed and made in the USA. They are completely washable.

I have personally been giving my dolls to children with cancer since February of 2015. Bee Brave Buddies have been shipped to children across the USA and to several countries. We are excited to announce that we have now received our determination letter from the IRS and we are a 501(c)3 nonprofit. This will allow us to make and deliver dolls to children battling cancer across the country and beyond with your help and support.


What can you do to help? 

We are looking for doll ambassadors, an integral part of our team. They are like the generals in our army, helping us make big decisions: They locate hospitals in their area, make child life connections for delivery of dolls, are available for the doll presentations, help secure local press and manage social media regarding their particular hospital. Doll ambassadors also reach out to help us find local contacts to sponsor these boxes of dolls delivered to their local hospitals, either on a one-time basis gift or an ongoing monthly program.

Our new initiative, The Bee Brave Buddies of the Month Club allows a sponsor to send a box of ten dolls per month to a designated hospital. Our Christmas Holiday program encourages families or businesses to celebrate a holiday they will fondly remember, one in which they gave back to others. Our creative doll ambassadors put together teams from family, friends, businesses, corporations, church groups, school groups or sports teams that would like to rally for our cause. These are just a few examples of groups that can help us touch the lives of these children in a very profound way. Our dolls give the children comfort, courage and confidence. These seriously ill children only want to be normal and play! When the child smiles, the caregivers smile, and all of the medical staff smile. It is infectious! Our dolls provide these smiles when the children are hugging and loving them, much like my Gigi puppy provided to me.

Our mission is to put a Bee Brave Buddy doll in the arms of all children around the world in treatment or recuperation from cancer who need a hug to help these children feel brave and to provide emotional support to children and young adults with cancer and other serious illnesses. Any child battling cancer can receive a free Bee Brave Buddies doll to love.

If you would like to make a difference in the lives of these sweet children, drop by our web site to learn more about our nonprofit and please join us today.


Rosanna Hope Bernstein


Bombings & Shootings & Stabbings, OH MY!



We all might be feeling on edge these days. I know I am after the bombings in my hometown of NYC this week. But I have coping skills as an adult. How hard must it to be to be a kid and see this stuff on TV? How do we help our children feel safe as we do our best to keep our own fears in check? We know that children need help to process these unfathomable occurrences. The bad news doesn’t just go over their heads, and they will draw their own conclusions and suffer inner fears alone without adult support. The trouble is, what do we do when we don’t know what to say? When we don’t have answers?

Thank goodness, there is some great expert advice out there to guide adults in helping kids process  disasters, both natural and manmade.  Here are some links to get you started.

Discussing Tragic Events in the News

Addressing Extremism

Talking to Children about Shootings

Stay safe out there, and help children in your care to feel safe by monitoring their exposure to news on TV and the internet. Whether you are a parent, caregiver, or if you work in a hospital or school setting, gently encourage adults to keep TV/radio news off in the presence of children, and to be aware of children’s listening ears when discussing events with one another. And then, begin the tough discussions.


Driving the Camel: Installment #15


Heading South

We arrived at the beach house, where Marianne and her family had returned for the weekend. We gathered around the kitchen table telling stories of our adventures, but I already felt removed from the day’s events.  My thoughts turned inward as I anticipated saying goodbye to Garth. I knew that when the iced tea was gone, that Garth would be driving back to Clair and his farm, and that I may never see him again.

When the time came, I dragged my feet as I walked him out to his car.

“You know I wouldn’t have taken just anyone caving,” Garth said.

“Yeah, you said you hadn’t done it in a long time, What made you say yes to me?”

“It was just something about your voice,” he answered. “I liked your voice and your spirit.”

He surprised me with a hug so hard that I thought I might break in two.

As he drove off down the beach road, I thought about the many types of love we experience, if we are lucky, throughout our lives. The depth of feelings generated by  the unexpected connection forged with Garth was not unlike some of the strong emotional currents I have often felt with children passing through my care in hospitals. I’ve often wondered if it’s just me. Do I fall in love a thousand times too easily? Or do others feel the pangs and elation that I do when my spirit resonates with someone else’s, stranger or friend, child or adult?

One thing for sure, it was not easy to part with such a wonderful new friend and to leave the beauty and peace of Lang’s Beach.  But leave I did. Matt and his family awaited me in Christchurch and Naomi waited in Kaikoura. Naomi had been another guide on our kayaking trip. She’d since visited us in New York, and now it was time to check out her stomping grounds on the South Island. Then, hard to imagine now, I would be heading home.

The plot twist for this leg of my  journey was all my bad. I managed to miss my plane by misreading my itinerary. As Marianne and her husband drove me to the airport, I figured out the mistake. My heart sped up as I realized that there was no way in hell I was going to make my plane. Marianne pulled up across the street from the terminal and popped the trunk. Our goodbye was hasty as I grabbed my suitcase and futilely ran across the street and through the glass doors, trying to breathe deeply and slowly to calm myself down.

The ticket agent smiled at me as I struggled with my suitcases and my passport.

“Don’t worry, you can just hop on the next plane in an hour.”

“How much will that cost?” I asked warily.

“Nothing. This isn’t a problem,” she answered.

And much to my amazement and relief,  it wasn’t. Catching the next departure, I settled into a window seat on the small commuter plane. It was a short flight through bright afternoon skies,  the South Island rising up to greet me as the plane touched down in Christchurch. A shuttle bus gave me a glimpse of the city as it made multiple stops on the way to  the hotel, a sleek, modern box not too far from the airport. I splurged on room service for dinner and then sank gratefully into the clean sheets, setting my phone alarm for early the next morning.  

The ringtone of Natalie Merchant’s Wonder wafted into my consciousness at 7am. I was so excited to see Matt, and I also wanted to make sure that I had time to eat breakfast and write in my journal. A few hours later, as I waited for  in the lobby, I wondered what it would be like to hang out with him and Helen. Would we click the way we had out on the Strait? Would it be awkward? How much time could they spend with me and how much time would I be alone? I assumed they were busy people between work and having two kids. That relentless anxiety of being on my own crept in, smudging over the recent accomplishments of  my alone time at Lang’s Beach.

But all worries evaporated when I saw Matt. I hugged him unabashedly and our friendship commenced right where it had left off six years ago.

Matt’s mother-in-law and his twin eleven month-old daughters awaited us in the car. We toured Christchurch, stopping at the makeshift temporary church that the diocese erected when the 2011 earthquake rendered the original Christ Church uninhabitable. 185 People died in the second deadliest earthquake in the country’s history, and the city had far from recovered. The devastation of the city was heartbreaking. Two years following the earthquake of 2011 and there were still many empty lots filled with rubble and ruined buildings gaping in despair. Matt said it will take twenty years to rebuild.




We ate lunch in Lyttelton before we followed the winding road to a sweet, small town on the coast. The neighbor’s cottage abutted  Matt and Helen’s property on a quiet country road flanked by horse meadows and a dune- fringed beach. The cottage overlooked an enchanting garden, fully equipped with a tub and a fire pit underneath for outdoor bathing.


Worries about being lonely were unfounded and quickly soothed. The cottage provided the perfect balance of privacy and proximity to Matt and Helen’s cozy home.  A routine quickly formed – tea and cereal in the garden, accompanied by birdsong, and the occasional squawk from the neighboring rooster. I meditated and journaled before skyping in with Mark. Then, I would close up the cabin and trot around the corner to Matt and Helen’s house, hitching open the quaint latched gate to their yard, and ruffling their dog’s ears as I passed her on the porch.  


Over the week, I enjoyed witnessing the rhythm of their family life. They had a brilliant schedule for the twins, with Matt taking on the lion’s share of parenting while Helen worked as an administrator at the airport. The presence of Helen’s mom made it possible for Matt to spirit me away for some outdoors sightseeing, which was such an unexpected treat for me.. Matt had some adventures lined up  for us and we discussed the possibilities over dinner that first night. We settled on plans for more cave exploration and a day trip to Arthur’s Pass in the South Andes Mountains.

Our drive out to the mountains gave us plenty of time to catch up on each other’s lives and get to know one another better. Much like this New Zealand adventure, my camping trip on the Johnstone Strait in British Columbia with Matt had been an amalgamation of firsts for me: first attempt at ocean kayaking, first camping trip, first vacation with a friend without Mark along. Like a younger version of Garth, Matt was a skilled guide accustomed to amateurs. He knew how to meet me at my skill level and scaffold me to higher performance and more endurance. His patience, kindness, and sense of humor boosted me out of my comfort zone, and I was able to withstand eight-hour paddles in rough water. In a few short days, I went from tentative paddling in a double kayak to coasting solo on the wake of a giant cruise ship, yelling “Yeehah!”


During my cancer treatment, I’d recalled my initial fears of that adventure and how I had faced them with Matt’s support. The memory of how far I had come, the confidence in my body, and the strength that I developed on that kayaking trip, all became a reminder for me as I faced scary firsts in treatment. I told myself repeatedly that I could face the unknown and do scary things with the right support. Meeting up with Matt on the other side of the world now, after surviving cancer, felt like coming  full circle. Our conversations on the mountain drive gave me the opportunity to thank him for all he’d done for me back on the Strait and explain how it reverberated throughout my medical experience.

A panoramic view of mountains, foothills, and clouds surrounded us, as we pulled into the parking lot adjacent to the cave trailhead.  I grabbed my gear and headed to the public bathroom to change into appropriate caving apparel. Matt had supplied headlamps, neoprene gloves and booties, fleece leggings, long underwear and “jumpers,” waterproof outer gear, and woolen hats. As I pulled on my layers, I thought about the trust I placed in him to keep me safe, first on the Strait, and now entering into an underground cavern. I had trusted the doctors at the hospital as well, as I followed the dark pathway of their many-layered regimens for ridding my body of cancer. Garth came to mind too, and how he’d met my trust with so much appreciation, respect and humor.  A synergy between vulnerability, trust and risk taking unfolded before me in all of these experiences. The Universe was asking me to do my part, while supplying all the necessary support in order to make all things possible. I strapped on my headlamp and headed out to meet my next adventure.


Dear newcomers to my blog,

Driving the Camel is a memoir that I am publishing as a serial on this blog. It follows my adventures as a child life specialist during a transformative year of my life when I battled breast cancer and travelled the world. It includes reflections on my past work as a child life specialist, my personal life and stories of the wonderful people I met on my travels. You can find previous chapters in the side menu categories (or scroll down on mobile devices) under “Driving the Camel: Adventures of a Child Life Specialist.

Driving the Camel: Installment #14



When my feet finally touched the ground, I shouted “I did it!”

“Yes you did!” said Garth.

I heard clapping and cheering behind me. I looked up to see four young people standing just outside the cave’s entrance. I waved to them and one yelled out, “I caught it all on film!” While Garth tramped back up the hill to retrieve the ropes, I chatted with the photographer and her friends, and exchanged e-mail addresses so that they could send me the photos.


“Can you take a photo of us,” the photographer asked me.  She set up the shot, handed me her camera, and joined her friends at the mouth of the cave.

“We are training for a Christian mission abroad,” she said as I gave back her camera.”

“That’s so exciting. I’ll be going on a mission myself in a few weeks, a medical mission to help kids in the Middle East.”

“If you don’t mind, we’d like to pray for you.”

“Sure,” I said, as I turned to leave. “And I will say a prayer for you guys.”

“No, we meant now. Can we gather now and lay our hands on you in prayer?”

I was a bit taken aback, but thought, what the heck? It couldn’t hurt.

I nodded and they surrounded me. They placed their hands on my shoulders and head. The young photographer led the prayer.

“May God bless you and keep you, filling you with strength and courage to do his work. May you be safe and secure in your mission to help those in need”.

I felt myself tearing up as the power of their words and touch moved through me. My father is a minister and I grew up with the comfort of his hand on my forehead and his prayers each night. As strange as this odd encounter with young missionaries seemed, it felt familiar and safe. I was happy to carry their prayers and good will with me.

Garth and I met up back at the car. I reached into my purse for my wallet. We’d negotiated a price for our first expedition, and I wanted to pay him for his time today.

Garth held up his hand. “ No way,” he said. “Yesterday you had a “C” price rating. Today, you’re an “F”

“I don’t get it,” I said.

“Yesterday, you were a ‘c’  for client. Today, “you’re an ‘f’ for friend. No charge.”

I put my wallet away.

“So, what was your favorite part today?” I asked him.  “Was it when I was dangling there like a Christmas ornament?”

“Nope,” he said. “It was when you were terrified and you did it anyway.”

I smiled as I took that in, holding tight to the strength that he mirrored back to me. I felt nourished by Garth’s words and the missionaries’ prayers. I contemplated the kindness present in the world as we bounced along the rutted dirt road and turned back onto the main thoroughfare.

Like Garth had done for me, I’d had the honor of witnessing and supporting children facing some pretty scary things. Playing with children facing illness and treatment, the unfathomable became more manageable. A child came to mind who I’d worked with years ago, a war refugee from Bosnia, his family facing a different kind of war when their son was diagnosed with cancer. Five year-old Serge and his family had traveled a great distance and suffered many hardships before his medical diagnosis. Caught in the midst of the Bosnian war in the mid-1990s and forced to flee from their home, the family lost possessions, their livelihood, and many friends and family members. While refugees in their own country, Ivan and Hana discovered a lump in their son’s left foot. The doctors in Belgrade diagnosed it as an invasive, cancerous tumor. As a physician, Ivan knew that his son needed aggressive treatment. He managed to obtain refugee status in the United States, and he, his wife, Hana, Serge, and his ten year-old brother, Davud, found their way to New York City and the hospital where I worked.

I searched for ways to connect with this family. A friend gave me some great advice.

“Learn a few common phrases in his language,” said Petar. “It will make him feel more at home, and show the family that you care.”

I couldn’t imagine being able to pronounce their language with any accuracy and I told him as much.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Petar. “It’s the trying that counts.”

He  taught me how to say hello and goodbye, and how to ask, “How are you today?” and “What would you like to play with?” These may have been only a handful of phrases, but when I haltingly mispronounced them, Serge would smile, laugh, and answer me in rapid Serbo-Croatian.

One day, Serge and I played Yahtzee Jr. in the clinic, while he received his chemotherapy. His mother sat close by reading and chatting with me. Yahtzee is a game that requires little or no spoken language and we played easily together, enjoying the clack and roll of the dice. Hana and I conversed in English, and soon, a cross expression appeared on Serge’s face. I could tell something bothered him and assumed that it was my lack of complete attention. I encouraged Hana to ask Serge what was wrong and an animated conversation ensued between them as I sat holding my dice.


“He is angry with you because he knows you speak his language and he wants to know why you insist on speaking English with me,” Hana explained.

I asked Hana to translate for me and dove in.

“Oh, I get it, Serge! I asked how you are and what you’d like to play with in Serbo-Croatian. It must feel like I am leaving you out when I speak English with your mom.”

Serge nodded, so I continued.

“I only know how to say a few things in your language because a friend taught me. So, I have to speak English the rest of the time. But I will try harder not to leave you out of the conversation. And maybe you can teach me how to say a few more things in your language.”

Serge grinned at me and shook his dice.

“You are ready to get back to the game,” I said and followed his lead.

I admired Serge’s strong sense of self and was not surprised when Ivan shared a story of his son’s experience in the Belgrade hospital that exemplified his spirit. The Serbian hospital had strict visiting hours and Ivan and Hana were not allowed to spend nights at their son’s bedside. When Ivan arrived early one morning, the nurse on duty reported that she had caught Serge attempting to leave the hospital the previous night. Serge had limped into an elevator and would have been long gone if not for the nurse’s quick actions.

Ivan approached his son and put his arm around his son’s small shoulders. “What do you think you were doing last night?”

“My foot hurt. I don’t like it here, so I was going home.”

  “Home,” his father repeated. “And how do you think you were going to get there?”

“I was going to take a taxi. I know my address,” he said.

Ivan continued his excavation. “Hmm, yes you do, but let me ask you this. How were you going to pay for the taxi?”

  “Well, you would have paid for it when I got there of course!” Serge said.


  Ivan told this story with pride and I enjoyed hearing his narrative of Serge’s resilience. The whole family embraced a positive attitude towards their son’s illness and their lives in general. When devastating medical news arrived, that Serge’s foot required an amputation, they remained calm and open with their son about the impending amputation. Entering Serge’s inpatient room the day before surgery, I found a helium Garfield the Cat balloon. Ivan had removed Garfield’s left foot, a playful and creative action that indicated their willingness to discussing the amputation with their children.

This is a tribute to Serge’s adaptability and determined attitude, and his parents’ ability to value these strengths and to act accordingly. Many parents avoid speaking with their children about imminent frightening procedures. They believe that the way to protect their child from upsetting experiences is to avoid the topic at all costs. The downside of secrecy is that these children wake up with pain and changes in their bodies, and simultaneously encounter a loss of trust in their support system. For many children, this can be as devastating and irrevocable as the loss of a limb.

As I would with Serge, child life specialists routinely use their knowledge about child development to appropriately prepare children for procedures. We partner with parents to tell kids what they will see, hear, feel, smell, and taste, because children experience their surroundings through the five senses. We calibrate our language to match the developmental age of the child, and we continually assess how the child is responding to and coping with the information. Just like adults, some kids want to know a lot of details; some do not. But all children feel safer when they know what to expect and who will be there to support them.


On that day, my goal was to prepare Serge and his family for surgery through the use of play. Speaking to children through the language of play makes every topic less scary and provides opportunities for them to roll up their sleeves and take charge of their medical experiences. Interactive play deepens the learning and gives the child opportunities to construct their own understanding and interpretation of the events they are facing. It also gives them a safe venue to ask questions and express concerns. Play empowers children to evolve from passive recipients of medical care to active participants in their own healing.

I explained my motives and plan to them. Serge and his brother, Davud, joined me in donning surgical garb, gowns, gloves, hats, masks, and booties.

“This is the patient,” I said, pointing to the doll, “and he needs his left foot amputated. We are going to give him anesthesia and perform the surgery right here.”

As I spoke, his mother  cleared a place for the doll on Serge’s rolling bedside table, removing his lunch tray and set it on the windowsill.

Without my asking, Davud leapt in to interpret for his brother, so I continued. “You guys can be whoever you want: the surgeon, the nurse, the parent. And you can tell me who I should be, as well. It’s also okay to just watch if you want.”

“I’ll be the surgeon,” Davud immediately stated.  

Uncharacteristically, Serge hung back.

“You can watch Davud start, and jump in at any time you want,” I said. “Now, since this doll doesn’t have a face or clothes, I thought we might begin by decorating him.”

I handed the boys a bin of markers.

“I’m wondering how this guy is feeling and what kind of expression you should put on his face.”

Davud turned to Serge to get his opinion. Serge piped in in rapid Serbo-Croatian.

“Serge says that the patient is scared, so I think he needs a sad face.”

He busied himself with decorating the doll.

With my guidance, Davud enacted the steps of preparing the doll for surgery, checking the patient’s ID, marking the foot to be removed, and administering the anesthesia through a mask. I explained the difference between regular and anesthetized sleep, and at my encouragement, Davud playfully shouted in the doll’s ear to make sure that he was indeed asleep. By this point, Serge began to reach for the medical implements, offering his brother suggestions. When it came time to actually amputate the doll’s foot, the boys worked together to manipulate the scissors, remove the stuffing, thread the needle, and sew and bandage the wound.


Many adults struggle with the idea of broaching medical topics with children. But what is awkward and frightening for adults may not be so for children. Kids play freely and happily when given permission, suitable tools, and an encouraging atmosphere. During the pretend surgery, Davud and Serge were animated, interactive, present, and curious. After Serge’s initial hesitance, the boys became deeply immersed in the activity, asking questions about the surgery and what would come afterwards. Their father and I took turns answering their questions, with Ivan’s medical background filling in gaps in my information. When I asked Serge what he would like to do with the doll’s amputated foot, he suggested wrapping it in tissue paper and placing it in a box for safekeeping. I provided the box and tissues, and Serge and Davud went about this task with quiet reverence.

Those boys and their parents are forever in my heart, and I picture them, bent over that doll, whenever I teach a child life student how to prepare a child for an amputation using play.



Dear newcomers to my blog,

Driving the Camel is a memoir that I am publishing as a serial on this blog. It follows my adventures as a child life specialist during a transformative year of my life when I battled breast cancer and travelled the world. It includes reflections on my past work as a child life specialist, my personal life and stories of the wonderful people I met on my travels. You can find previous chapters in the side menu categories (or scroll down on mobile devices) under “Driving the Camel: Adventures of a Child Life Specialist.


Driving the Camel: Installment #13 Abseil



Dear newcomers to my blog,

Driving the Camel is a memoir that I am publishing as a serial on this blog. It follows my adventures as a child life specialist during a transformative year of my life when I battled breast cancer and travelled the world. It includes reflections on my past work as a child life specialist, my personal life and stories of the wonderful people I met on my travels. You can find previous chapters in the side menu categories (or scroll down on mobile devices) under “Driving the Camel: Adventures of a Child Life Specialist.


I lay in bed that night, feeling unready to let this day be the last chapter of the Deb and Garth adventures. I thought about love, and how strange it was to feel my heart so full for people I’d just met that day. I was hard to put understand the connection and affection I felt for Garth. It was like I’d known him for years, or maybe even in another life.

I phoned him the next morning.

“I know I am not ready to abseil into a cave and swim out,” I said. “But would you be willing to give me a ropes lesson, so that I can try some abseiling in the light of day?”

Garth readily agreed and we set our sights on Saturday. That would be my last full day on the Island before I would head to the South Island for the last leg of my journey. That morning he picked me up and we drove back to the cave, both of us in high spirits and joking. He entertained me with a story of an intruder who’d awoken him the previous night.

“I heard this noise and I figured one of the chooks had gotten into the house again. So, I followed the sounds and opened the bathroom door, and there was a damned possum in there, hissing like it was going to eat me alive.”

“What did you do?” I asked.

“Well, I just sat myself down on the floor and started to sing it a lullabye. Then once it calmed down a bit, I got myself a blanket and tossed it over it and carried it outside.”

“So what you’re telling me is that you’re a kind of possum whisperer,” I laughed.

As we neared the turnoff for the cave, I decided it was important to be honest with Garth.

“I just want to tell you something. I am terrified of heights. I get vertigo, my knees turn to jelly, and I feel like throwing up.  But it is something I really want to face it today. I want to abseil.”

“Everyone is scared when they do this for the first time,” he said. “The difference between boys and girls is that girls are more likely to admit they’re scared.”

I hopped out of the car to get the gate, and then followed the car into the pasture. It was another perfect day, not a cloud to be seen and a warm breeze tickling the grass. Garth popped the boot and hauled out a tangled mass of ropes and gear.  I grabbed a helmet and secured the strap under my chin.

“So first, I’m gonna teach you a bit about tying knots. When it comes to abseiling, you’re only as safe as your knots.” He nimbly worked a small rope into the shape of a harness, telling me a story as he went about rabbits and holes and foxes. As quickly as he had fashioned the harness, he undid the knots and handed it to me.

“Your turn.”

I fumbled with the rope, trying to recall the story and moves. He watched patiently and guided me with a few hints now and then. It took more than a couple of tries, but he seemed in no hurry. When he deemed me ready, Garth helped me step into the homemade harness. We practiced on flat ground first, tying the ropes around a sturdy tree. Garth’s big  hands moved efficiently, as he hooked my harness to the rope and showed me where to hold on, and the art of leaning back and playing out the rope in my right hand.  

“Keep your feet shoulder width apart to maintain your center of gravity. Never let go of this rope without securing it. Here is how you hitch it if you need to free up your hands.”

His instructions were clearly demonstrated, but the tasks were unfamiliar to me, as I struggled clumsily with the equipment. He patiently guided me through each step until he felt comfortable with my technique.

Only then did we make our way up the wooded slope slanting back over the mouth of the cave. He hauled the heavy ropes and I did my best to keep up with him. We reached a plateau and Garth led us to the precipice of the cliff. We stood directly over the entrance to the cave, about 80 feet above. I looked down at the vertical rock wall, which we would traverse with the ropes. About 10 feet back from the edge, there were several stakes buried deep in the ground, remnants of previous forays over the cliff. Garth securely fastened two lengths of rope to the stakes.


“How do you know these are secure,” I asked, not fully able to trust.

“Because they go down about six feet into the ground” he said. Good answer.

I stepped into my harness and prepared for my descent. 

“Don’t look down.” I told myself. “You can do this if you look straight ahead.”

Garth lowered himself backwards first. From there, he coached me as I made my first tentative steps in his wake.

The harness felt like a flimsy string cutting into me, rather than a secure perch. I gripped the rope with all my might, terrified that my weight would make it yank from my grasp.

“Easy does it,” came Garth’s voice from below. “Widen your stance. Lean back until your heels make contact with the wall.”

I did as I was told.

“Now take a step down,” he instructed.

Somehow, I thought he meant for me to look for a purchase in the wall. I looked down and spotted a passable crevice. I took a deep breath and jumped towards it, letting out the rope as I scrabbled for a foothold.

“That’s not what I meant,” he said, laughing. “Just walk down the wall one step at a time.

The jump had shot adrenaline through my veins, and my heart began to pound. My excitement was evaporating quickly as I scanned the lip of the cliff that was now about two feet over my head. Just like the plane ride, there was no going back. The only way was down and I was frozen, unable to go any further.

“I am panicking,” I told Garth. “I don’t think I can move.”

“Just hold on a minute. I’ll be right there.”  

He quickly navigated his way up the face of the rock to where I clung to my rope in a death grip. He steadied himself beside me and smiled.

“Let me tell you a story. The Dali Lama had this doctor. They were discussing health and the doc said to him, ‘You know what is wrong with people today? People today forget one very important thing. They forget how to breathe. And he took a deep breath in and out with the Dali Lama. And then he took another one.’”

As Garth spoke, I followed  the emotional stepping- stones of his story.  I breathed deeply and after a few moments I felt my panic begin to subside.

“I think I’m okay now.”

“All right, then. Let’s do it.”


Garth returned to his spot below me. I took one more long, deep breath, set my feet shoulder width apart and began my descent. From there on, the exhilaration returned. I only had one moment when I lost contact with the wall. I spun in a circle, my feet kicking out for contact.

“I don’t like this! I don’t like this!” I squealed.

“You’re all right!” Garth called up, laughing at my distress.

His humor made me relax. He wouldn’t be laughing if I were in any real danger. I let the rope out until my feet felt the wall again, and then I walked backwards down the wall with ease.

When my feet finally touched the ground, I shouted “I did it!”

“Yes you did!” said Garth.


Benefits of Skin to Skin Contact: Spotlight and Giveaway of The NuRoo Pocket — Child Life Mommy

While attending the Child Life Council Conference in Orlando, I had the opportunity to meet with Hope Parish and see her amazing baby wearing product, The NuRoo Pocket. Every caregiver and parent in a hospital or home could greatly benefit from this innovative product. Learn about how NuRoo was established, the benefits for parent and baby and how you […]

via Benefits of Skin to Skin Contact: Spotlight and Giveaway of The NuRoo Pocket — Child Life Mommy

Driving the Camel: Installment #12



 Alpacas and Chooks

The house where Garth and Clair had recently retired  perched on top of a gentle hill, their farmland spreading out below. Cattle chewed grass by the side of a pond surrounded by cattails and high grass. As we pulled into the unpaved driveway, a black lab with a greying muzzle wiggled in delight as she approached the car. A great blue heron  perched on their well pump. It didn’t ruffle a feather as we passed it. Three alpacas peered at us from behind a fence. I turned to Garth.

“Are you sure Clair won’t mind being surprised by an unannounced guest?” I asked.

“Clair loves guests!” he bellowed. I wondered if she really did, or if Garth might be a bit clueless about the stress that unexpected guests can put on a wife. But the moment I stepped into their home, I could see he was far from clueless. Continue reading

Medical Staff Gotta Play!


The recent Pokemon Go craze has hospital administrators  flummoxed by their employees’ behavior. Several hospitals have called for a ban on medical staff playing the digital game while at work, claiming that they are ignoring patient needs in pursuit of the free-to-play location-based augmented reality mobile game. There is no question that social media should never come before a patient’s medical needs, but the administrators may be missing an important point.

Adults need to play.

Yup, that’s what I said. Adults need to play.

Articles about burnout in the medical field appear every day on my news feed. Caring professionals exposed to repeated trauma working long hours in tough conditions with impossible patient to staff ratios face compassion fatigue and burnout on a regular basis. There are no easy answers, probably not one thing that can turn this phenomenon around. But if we look at the current Pokemon seeking behavior, it gives us a clue.

Think about recess at school and all the studies that show how increased physical movement and play greatly improve children’s ability to learn, function and lead healthier lives. Why should it be any different for adults? In fact, Alison Tonkin and Julia Whitaker have just published a terrific book Play in Healthcare for Adults: Using Play to Promote Health and Wellbeing Across the Adult Lifespan, that explores the role of play in adults’ health and coping. 


They show how central play is to our biological makeup and evolutionary history. Play is a crucial ingredient of survival for all mammalian species (Tonkin & Whitaker, 2016). In the forward to the book, Suzanne Zeedyk, a research scientist and founder of connected baby states

We know these truths instinctively. However we relegate them to our private lives and personal relationships. Contemporary culture does not reserve an official role for play in our public, professional lives. Work is serious. Play is not.

That’s why this book is radical. Its editors have been willing to shout loudly about the importance of play in professional contexts.They have been willing to bring theory, empirical evidence, and practical examples to their claim.

Jon Loungo, a child life specialist at Maimonides Hospital Center in Brooklyn, NY, coined the term Tongue Depressor Challenge. It refers to providing medical staff (and often patients) with loose parts , and telling them, “Create something that shows how the hospital experience could be improved, in real or imaginary ways, and include at least one tongue depressor in your project.”  With this 3-D challenge in mind, I allow my imagination free reign in envisioning what the presence of play might contribute to excellent healthcare in hospitals. I picture doctors, nurses, administrators and technicians taking scheduled breaks throughout the work day. I picture play rooms set aside for staff that include expressive art corners, rock climbing walls, trampolines and ping pong tables.  Hey, and what about pet therapy?

Call me crazy.