Starlight Talks With CHLA Carol Kim – Learn why a child life specialist is so beneficial for hospitalized kids and their families

Carol Kim has spent 11 years working at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles as part of their child life specialist team. In October 2015, Kim, 35, was promoted to managing the department of 40, including herself. Starlight spoke with Carol about the work a child life specialist does for patients and their families.

What is a child life specialist?

A child life specialist focuses on providing support for patients and families in the medical setting. They promote positive coping, provide education and developmentally appropriate support to help our patients have a successful experience with while in the hospital.

How did you become a child life specialist? What is your background and training?

My background and training is in child development. My bachelor’s is in childhood development with a minor in psychology from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. I went on to pursue my masters in science in child life from the University of La Verne. My training was at Queen of the Valley Medical Center and the LAC+USC Women and Children’s Hospital.

What drew you to working as a child life specialist?

I have always loved working with children and originally thought I would pursue my degree in liberal studies to pursue the profession of teaching. I noticed I wasn’t completely interested in teaching, and began to gravitate towards the field of psychology. I enjoyed components of both subjects, and then discovered my perfect balance of utilizing both skills when I learned about child life.

Child life is not as well-known as most professions such as nursing or firefighting. It’s not a typical career that you learn about growing up. Everyone who enters the field of child life, has a unique story as to how they discovered this special career. For me it was in college when I was working at a summer camp and there was an onsite medical clinic, there the nurse asked me what I was studying and what my interests were. From there she shared about wonderful child life.

I think what has really reinforced my passion in being in child life is discovering what an honor it is being part of what our patients and families are going through. It‘s such a challenging and scary experience. It’s not normal. You meet these families in such a critical time of their life and being part of their support network becomes a huge honor because they trust you and value your time and services.

How are child life specialists different than or similar to doctors and nurses?

We are all there with the same purpose, the goal to help our children get better, but we all focus on different components. Our doctors focus on treating the medical condition. The nurses help to care and treat, and we, as child life specialists, focus on their emotional well-being and make sure their feelings are validated and acknowledged.

While our medical team is focusing on the physical well-being, we work to ensure our patients and families are supported emotionally and they’re informed at a developmentally appropriate level, and provide coping tools to get through their medical experience successfully.

Hospitals first started using child life specialists in the 1920s. How has the role of the child life specialist evolved over the years?

As each year that goes by, we are recognized more and more as an integral part of the interprofessional team. The way in which we have experienced that at CHLA is that we are part of so many different hospital-wide committees now – from patient care service committees and councils discussing various procedures and policies, various practices clinically and academically.

What was the path that led you to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles?

It was my first job; my first choice. I have just always known this was a highly-recognized pediatric facility – the research we conduct, all the specialties that we provide and all the special services we provide in terms of the various medical clinics. I’ve always heard a lot about Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and knew they were leaders in pediatric medicine, research, and their child life program was progressive. The opportunities for growth, learning, and collaboration is constant at CHLA. I completed my internships at several other hospitals, but CHLA is special because it’s one of the few freestanding children’s hospital. All the programming and conversation taking place at CHLA is focused specifically on promoting the child and families’ overall experience and care.

Describe a typical day for you.

I arrive in the morning typically around 8 a.m. and I check email. My priority is to make sure we’re well-staffed and if there are any gaps in coverage, a plan is made for that day. My priority is to check in with staff and make sure to address any significant issues. Now that I’m in my management position, staff is my top priority to make sure they’re well-supported and successful. I feel that if they know they are well supported, they’ll be better child life specialists for our patients and families. And this happens every day. I make sure we’re cultivating a collaborative work environment and that staff knows and is reassured that I definitely support them and I’m available.

From there, it’s working closely with administration and the leadership team to makes sure things are operating smoothly. And for me, I am committed to making sure department communication is open and two-way.

Each day is unique and unpredictable. Every day looks a little different. Ultimately, I’m building and maintaining strong relationships with staff, with the interdisciplinary team, with the administration and making sure we’re collaborating on what we need to do, which ultimately benefits our patients and families.

What are some of the programs/support you offer patients and families as a child life specialist?

We offer sibling support; grief and bereavement support; procedural support; procedural preparation; and various interventions to address coping issues related to their medical experience. This includes challenges with med compliance to coping with long-term hospitalization to new admissions to trauma.

How do you help a patient who has been hospitalized for months, can’t leave their room and is bored?

It starts with validating and taking time to listen and allow them to express what they are feeling, whether it’s frustration or sadness or apathy, and then discussing various ways to provide outlets. It all depends on their age and development and medical history. We explore various ideas to get creative while being the hospital with them, coordinating with the medical team to visit the garden or spend time in the café, when possible, to mix it up a little.

How have you seen the work you do change a child patient’s life? A family’s life?

When a patient is admitted or newly diagnosed, whether it’s infancy, school age and adolescent, there’s an initial feeling of hopelessness, fear, and anxiety. Child life provides just a little more light. When you see the child really scared or anxious, the child life specialist will go in and work with the child – just spending time to get to know them and their interests and normalizing the situation they’re in. It’s not normal to be in the hospital and out of school. So you’re building a rapport and becoming a trusted figure in the hospital and that can make such a difference because they trust the information we provide. When they have a procedure or test, we explain to the patient what is happening based on their current understanding and based on our conversation with the parents and what they have shared with us about their child – for example, what areas to focus on or shy area from. We’re part of the team and promoting positive coping for being in the hospital.

When the child’s anxiety is alleviated, you see the parents stress go down. And when you see the parent’s stress reduced, they can be more present with their child. That’s one of the big differences we see. It’s almost tangible. We don’t get there right away. It happens over time with focus and consistency working with our patients and families.

What’s a key piece of information you provide a young patient and their family?

We validate how our patients and families are feeling. It’s ok to feel nervous, it’s normal to feel nervous, it is normalizing what our patients and families are feeling. No two patients are the same. Everyone is unique in their experience.

And we are really involved in making sure siblings aren’t forgotten about. When one child in the family is sick or develops a medical condition, the healthy one gets put to the side. It’s not intentional. There’s so much going on. We really try to make sure our siblings are also focused on, receive the appropriate support and they understand what’s going on with their brother or sister and why their mom and dad are so inundated and have to be at the hospital and meet with doctors and all that. It’s amazing what a little attention and education can do. It can change the whole experience.

How has the support that Starlight provides helped you, your colleagues and your children and families in your day-to-day work?

The Starlight Fun Center units really provide an outlet. It’s always our most popular, frequently-demanded activity. All our children can enjoy them. It’s also a lot of fun for families that don’t have those games at home. And that’s always fun for siblings to visit. That’s what they look forward to! We’re so grateful to Starlight Children’s Foundation for supporting Child Life at CHLA and for sharing our commitment to children and families.

If you would like to help brighten the lives of seriously ill children, you can donate today. Your gift combined with the gift of others helps turn pain, fear and stress into laughter, fun and joy – because a sick kid is still a kid at heart.

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About the Author

Tara Millspaugh

Digital Media Manager


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