Deb may not remember this, but when I began my very first child life job I desperately reached out to her for help. The job I had been dreaming about turned out to be a job that I dreaded going to each day. I am pretty convinced that I developed a reputation on the commuter train as being “the girl that was always crying” before and after work in the city.
Within a short week of starting a one-person child life program, I quickly got the sense that child life was an unwanted and misunderstood service. The rehabilitation hospital wanted a person who would organize fun activities for the therapists to do with the patients during therapy. Staffs’ expectation was that this person would then stand off to the side—no talking, no co-treating. In their minds, child life was a party planner and recreational therapist. And if I tried to advocate and educate staff of more appropriate ways to utilize child life, then I would be at risk of being fired. On my first day as I shared ideas of how to develop the child life program, a behavioral therapist looked at me square in the eyes and said, “just do what they tell you to do. Tread lightly, Allie, or else…”
I felt intimidated. I felt overwhelmed. I felt defeated. And, I felt utterly alone.
I decided to email Deb Vilas, someone who I had never met, but whose name continued to pop up in child life forums and articles. I wanted to see if she had any advice on how to proceed in such a discouraging job.
Deb encouraged me, providing alternative approaches I could try. She reminded me to gently educate and model for staff what child life truly was. She pointed me towards focusing on connecting with the patients personally and spurred me towards pressing onward with confidence and conviction.
Which I did. And to be honest, every day was a battle.
Not only were the expectations of party planning incredibly taxing and difficult to carry out as a one-person program, my patient population also proved to be a challenge. Many of my patients were from the inner city and had come to the rehabilitation hospital due to injuries related to gang violence.
One patient, we will call him “Devon”, is a young man I will never forget.
I met Devon one afternoon during rounds. He had just been admitted and I could hear him shouting and swearing down the hall.
I heard staff whisper, “he is 16 and was shot 6 times trying to steal a car. This will be fun, won’t it?”
I knocked. “Devon? I am Allie, my job is to—“
“Hey, you know what? I don’t care. Go f*** yourself.”
“Alrighty, then. Good talk. Until tomorrow, Devon.”
I didn’t feel it was the time to keep pressing at that moment with Devon. Instead, I tried to break down his walls by showing up at his room every. single. day. The kid was going to be here until further notice, so I figured I had some time to connect with him.
And so. Every. Single. Day. I kept at it.
“Hey, Devon. Allie, here.”
“Get out. Go f*** yourself.”
“Devon, I just got this new video game and—“
“Would you shut up? Leave!”
Fast forward to approximately 15 days later.
“Allie, right? Word is you have some McDonald’s gift cards you give out to kids and can take them across the street after therapy is over.”
That was true. I actually received training in order to be able to take kids on outings.
Yet, hearing him actually initiate made me speechless at first.
“I like hot fudge sundaes,” Devon continued.
Finally, I responded, “I do, too. Let’s go get you one.”
From that day forward I sat in disbelief as I saw D’s walls slowly start to come down.We began a weekly ritual of going across the street to McDonald’s. And boy, it must have been a sight to watch us even try to get there! Devon was paralyzed from the neck down and was cruising in an extremely heavy and finicky power wheelchair. I was the lanky young-looking girl who would try to push said power wheelchair when it would malfunction!
But we would make it. And we would sit and actually talk. Devon began to open up to me about the life he lived from foster home to foster home. He shared with me the loneliness and abandonment he faced that pushed him to join a gang, his only sense of “family” and “belonging”.
Devon came to our hospital as a raging, angry, bitter and violent teenager. Yet he transformed into a gentle, kind and respectful young man. He even befriended another patient, a young 5-year-old girl who had a diagnosis of selective mutism. Yet Devon swore that she would talk to him. Sometimes when Devon was upset, he would have the nurse cover his face with his blanket so he could shut out the world. And then, this little 5-year-old friend would wheel up to him, rip off his blanket and smile at him. They would talk for hours. A true picture of “the lion” and “the lamb”.
Though the child life job description never seemed to get better at that hospital and the staff continued to be resistant, no matter what, meeting Devon and the relationship that budded made all the tearful train rides worth it. I wouldn’t have changed a thing.
Choosing to zero in on each individual patient ended up giving my work so much meaning and fulfillment, even if it didn’t feel like it at the time and even if I was still expected to solely plan parties. Because those patients didn’t just need a Halloween party or a fun game to play during therapy, they needed a child life specialist.
So for all of you who may be in a job that you hate, or be longing for a different opportunity, take a minute to look around and try to find your “Devon”. It will be worth it.