Cool Job: Child life specialist helps kids cope with hospital stays

Elise Ehrenreich, Hospital Child Life Specialist

A typical day at the office is anything but typical for Elise Ehrenreich, a certified child life specialist at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

For one thing, Ehrenreich's "office" rotates among play areas for children and teens, individual patient rooms, and rooms where procedures are performed. Additionally, Ehrenreich's position entails regularly scheduled fun and games--with a developmental purpose, of course.

Ehrenreich helps a wide variety of pediatric patients cope with their hospital stays. By assisting patients and their families with understanding information from their doctors and helping them to prepare for medical procedures — Ehrenreich literally holds the hands of patients through treatments and everything else associated with a hospital stay. Her diverse caseload includes patients in general pediatrics, adolescent medicine, nephrology and endocrinology.

"One of my major roles is to help educate and prepare patients for the hospital--to make it less scary," she says. "Whether they're getting an IV for medication or a CAT scan, I'll use doctor's kits or pictures of the machines, or bring in objects, so they can touch them and see them and increase their awareness and comfort level. I provide support during the procedures, so they and their families can feel better about the situation."

Games professionals play

Ehrenreich's role can be as simple as asking a kid about his or her interest in soccer or as complex as having to refer patients to specialists if they are not eating or are experiencing emotional problems. "Playing Uno with a patient, we may start to talk about things," she explains. "You get information you might not get by asking directly."

Ehrenreich also gets to plan fun events, such as spa days with makeup and hair sessions; facilitate visits from celebrities and athletes--Selena Gomez, Joe Jonas and NFL kicker David Akers have been among her more famous visitors; and teach a regular slate of classes on managing diabetes.

For younger children, the playroom offers obvious attractions--there are all kinds of cars, trucks, dinosaurs, dolls, a play kitchen and arts and crafts supplies. The teen room, dubbed the Lion's Den, is just as compelling, with a Wii, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, as well as more sophisticated arts materials. But getting teens there can prove challenging, Ehrenreich explains. "For teens, getting them out of their rooms is huge," she says. "Definitely having a space for teens to be teens and to bond with each other is important."

No matter what's on her plate, Ehrenreich's day could quickly change if a patient receives a difficult diagnosis and needs support, or is feeling anxious about impending surgery.

"No one day is the same--a huge part of the job is prioritizing the day," she says.

Many paths to child life specialty

Underpinning Ehrenreich's work, even the seemingly fun stuff, is a strong therapeutic foundation. Ehrenreich holds a bachelor's degree in therapeutic recreation and psychology, with a minor in human development and family studies, from Indiana University.

An 18-week internship at North Carolina Children's Hospital in Chapel Hill, N.C. introduced her to the child life specialty and led her to pursue the job at CHOP. She is part of a staff of 41 full-time child life specialists at the Philadelphia hospital. Her department also includes art and music therapists and other therapeutic specialists.

"You're using your knowledge base of child development, so you're creating the right therapeutic environment," she says. "To get into child life, there are a lot of educational paths, whether it's human development, child development, psychology or therapeutic recreation. I was always interested in pediatrics and wanted to apply what I was learning to that field."

Ehrenreich also has obtained Child Life Council certification, which requires a minimum of a bachelor's degree, course work in 10 child life or related subjects, and 480 hours of clinical experience. Most hospitals require certification within a year of being hired. Child life specialists in 2007-2008 had a median salary of $39,775, according to the CLC.

Keeping your perspective

One of the biggest challenges for child life specialists is to balance their commitment to engaging patients and their families with the need to maintain some professional distance. For additional insights into her profession, Ehrenreich taps the CLC's website, which offers message boards, support groups and programming ideas.

"You're definitely working on challenging cases, whether there are psycho-social issues or really hard medical issues," she says. "A new kidney disease diagnosis can seem like the end of the world for some teens that have to a take a new medicine."

At the same time, Ehrenreich derives much satisfaction from her job.

"The hospital can be such an overwhelming experience, it's a good feeling when you ask a kid, 'How's it going?' and they say, 'It's really fun,'" Ehrenreich explains. "To be able to come into a room and make sense of things, to be that support system and to help advocate for patients and families to have more control in the setting is great."

More about Elise Ehrenreich

1. What did you eat for breakfast? A bowl of Golden Grahams cereal

2. Which day of the week is your favorite? Saturday

3. Which day of the week is your least favorite? Tuesday

4. What was the first job you ever had? Babysitter

5. What makes you angry? Bullying

6. What makes you joyful? Spending time with family and friends

7. If you could have any job, other than your own, what would it be? Party planner for weddings

8. If you had the time and the money to study anything at all, what would you choose? Medicine

9. What did you want to be when you grew up? Back-up dancer

10. Can money bring you happiness? No, the people around me bring me happiness

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