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March 9, 2020

What Parents Can Expect at the Hospital Emergency Center

By Rayna Emerson, CCLS

A trip to a hospital emergency center is often stressful for everyone in the family, especially for children who process and cope with new experiences, stress and anxiety differently than adults do. They often observe adults to learn how to handle these situations, so it’s important for the adult to keep in mind that a child is looking to them as a role model. Rayna Emerson, Certified Child Life Specialist (CCLS) at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital explains what parents should expect during an emergency center visit and how to be an advocate.

What are the top three things parents should keep in mind when heading to the emergency center?

  • Patients are not necessarily seen in the order in which they arrive, but instead the sickest or most critically injured children are seen first.
  • The wait could be long, so if you have time to prepare before heading to the hospital, bring:
    • A comfort item for the child (favorite blanket, stuffed animal or toy)
    • Toys or electronics for diversion and play
    • Phone and device chargers
    • Change of clothes for everyone
  • If possible, well children should stay home to avoid exposing them to illnesses.

What is a Child Life specialist and what do you do?

Certified Child Life Specialists (CCLS) are educated and clinically trained in the developmental impact of illness and injury. Their goal is to reduce the traumatic effects of hospitalization on children and their families by helping them positively cope. A CCLS might use a teaching doll before a procedure to demonstrate and educate patients about what they will experience as a way to address fears and improve cooperation.

Parents should ask for a Child Life specialist if:

  • A child has had difficulty coping with previous checkups at his or her primary care doctor’s office or hospital visits in the past.
  • The child is showing signs of anxiety and stress during the visit.
  • Their child requires what could seem like a potentially painful and/or scary medical intervention such as an IV.

What else can parents do for their kids in the EC?

Parents should be active in their child’s care and advocate for them. Even in the absence of a Child Life specialist, parents can:

  • Encourage their child to sit up instead of lay down during the intervention and if comfortable, hold them in your lap during a procedure. Lying down is the most threatening position to many children.
  • Ask their nurse about the most appropriate techniques to alleviate pain during a procedure such as a needle-free, painless device that will numb the skin before a poke.
  • Use your child’s cues and provide comfort as you see fit to help them through it. Some kids prefer distraction (providing positive and calming encouragement, singing and using toys and electronics) during a procedure, while some prefer to watch and will become more distressed if forced to look away.

Learn more about the Johns Hopkins All Children’s child life program and emergency center.

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