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As a parent, our instinct to protect our children is so deeply ingrained in our souls that when we are faced with something beyond our control, we feel powerless, guilty and scared. We do what most parents would do. We try to stay strong for our child.

Whether it is an illness or emergency, a hospital can be a very scary place for a child who has suddenly found himself in a strange place, surrounded by people he does not know and unable to understand what is going wrong inside his body. It can be just as scary for the parent who wants nothing more than to take the pain away.

This is where the Child Life Department at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital steps in.

“One of our goals is to normalize the environment for kids and their families and to try and advocate for their needs,” says Kelly Outlaw, a Child Life Specialist at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital.

A Child Life specialist is part of the team of doctors and nurses who are dedicated to making your child well again. These specialists have degrees in child development and understand how acute chronic illness can impact normal growth and development. They are a friend, confidant and partner in recovery.

“We are able to speak to children on their developmental level to explain what’s happening, the disease, what is going to happen throughout the disease process,” Outlaw explains. “We are able to help parents find the words to use to teach their own children.”

Child Life specialists at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital use stuffed animals and dolls to teach children about the procedures they are about to undergo and give children the opportunity to learn about what is happening through play.

“Even though a child may be sick, even if a child is at that point where they are at end of life, children still want to play,” Outlaw says. “They call it a child’s work to play. It teaches children about things. It helps them process their feelings. It helps to distract them from an overwhelming experience. No matter what age of development or whether a child is healthy or whether they are here in the hospital, play is vital.

“If a child is going to get an IV, we give them the opportunity to give their doll or stuffed animal an IV and talk about the process, talk about how they are going to cope with the actual experience,” she added.

The hospital also is equipped with devices designed for children on the autism spectrum, including a multisensory machine, that can be used in a patient’s room or treatment room. The cart opens up to show tubes of calming water bubbles, soothing lights and sounds. It also includes tubes of fiber optic light a child can touch.

“We can put it in front of them. They can hold them, and there’s just something about the change in colors that really helps relax them,” Outlaw says.

In addition to play, children and their families are able to participate in special events designed for them. Famous sports figures often stop by for a visit. There are parties, and, most recently, a group of super heroes showed up in a fire truck to drop off toys. The goal is as simple as a smile.

“A family doesn’t often times want to share their fear with their child so they try to be strong and that just gives them encouragement when their children are happy,” Outlaw says.

While there are just over 4,500 certified child life specialists worldwide, Outlaw says it is the best job in the world. “It doesn’t feel like work,” she says, smiling.

For more information, please visit

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