When an RN Needs Help at Home… Child Life is MY Hero

ACLP Bulletin | Fall 2020 | VOL. 38 NO.4

ACLPBulletinVol38No4_Fall 2020_FINAL-When_an_RN-Needs_Help_at_Home

Kevin Xuereb, MSN, MSEd, RN, ACCNS-AG, CCRN

I am writing this letter to the greater child life specialist community. Recently, there has been an extraordinary amount of attention given to nurses around the globe for their work during the COVID-19 crisis. Every time a bright light is shone on an object, it creates shadows elsewhere. Too often child life specialists are cast in the shadows of the hospital world. As a father and a nurse, I wanted to highlight a time when I needed a child life specialist to help me during my moment of crisis. The child life team at New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell certainly delivered.

I have been a nurse at New York Presbyterian Hospital for 13 years. Most of my time there has been spent on the Burn Unit caring for both pediatric and adult patients. As a burn nurse, I developed a profound and deep respect for our child life partners. Conducting routine wound care on a pediatric patient can be emotionally exhausting for both the patient and the nurse. Child life helps to lift that burden and create a more comfortable and emotionally tolerable environment. For a short time as the Manager of Burn Outreach, I teamed up with the Burn Unit child life specialist, Bailey. Bailey and I conducted the school reentry program for school-aged burn survivors on their return to the classroom. Nurses are always taught to be a patient advocate, but child life also acts as their confidant, cheerleader, and shoulder to cry on.

It was these attributes that helped me during the COVID-19 crisis. In mid-March, our hospital tried to triple our ICU capacity and double our ICU staffing by training several hundred nurses to handle the new volume. During this time, it was decided that all pediatric patients were to be moved to our sister hospital several miles north on the island of Manhattan. When the children left the hospital, I felt like we as a hospital community lost a small part of ourselves.

As a father of four children (ages two-12), there were some added pressures at home. My wife Maureen is a schoolteacher, and we tried to talk openly, honestly, and age appropriately about what was going on around us, without being too frightening (that was not easy). The uncertainty of the situation was compounded by the loss of people we knew to COVID-19. The strain of having a dad who worked in the ICU was wearing on the family. The fear of contaminating my family had me socially distancing from them as well. I kept my distance by staying alone in my room and wearing a mask at home, and those important hugs were few and far between. At work, the stress was always at the forefront, “Is my mask on right? Did I touch my face just now? How long did I wash my hands for?” During a routine morning, I ran into a friend who was a director of nursing. She asked how everything at home was, and I was honest. I said, “Not great. The kids aren’t doing too well, they are all worried about me getting sick.” She suggested I reach out to child life.

Without pediatric patients to work with, child life specialists took on the role of good will ambassadors bringing a morale boost to the hospital staff. When others would not go within a mile of a COVID-19 unit, they battled on with their red wagons and supported the frontline and nursing staff. They gave us snacks and kept us hydrated. They made encouraging signs for the units and a series of inspirational quotes in sidewalk chalk surrounding the hospital. My personal favorite was a little fish resembling Dori from Finding Nemo saying, “just keep swimming.” They were tirelessly cheerful, and I do not know how they did it.

"During a routine morning, I ran
into a friend who was a director of
nursing. She asked how everything
at home was, and I was honest.
I said, “Not great. The kids aren’t
doing too well, they are all worried
about me getting sick.” She
suggested I reach out to child life."

The child life specialists also provided personal support in the way of information for health care workers. They were there when I asked for help in providing support for children, both professionally and personally. Walking into their workroom was like meeting a room full of friends you didn’t know you had yet. Bailey had provided coloring sheets to help the children understand what personal protective equipment was and why we wear it. She suggested a workbook for children to help work through their anxieties. Finally, Bailey showed me the book The Invisible String by Patrice Karst. I ordered it right away and received it within a few days. As parents, my wife and I cried as we read it to our kids. The book helped my whole family understand the love we share with each other and that even though I have to go work at the hospital, and even though I was keeping my distance from them, we were all connected by the invisible string of love.

As I write this letter, we are 10 weeks into our quarantine. Having four children in close quarters for 10 weeks often has us feeling like lion tamers, trying to feed the kids so they will remain calm and not turn their hungry attention on the two helpless parents before them. We are still working on our anxieties, using the workbook, talking with the kids, spending as much 1:1 time as we can with each of them. It may appear like a small offering to suggest a book. As health care workers, we hear all the time about how small gestures can have profound results on our patients. The time I spent with Bailey and her team will always have special meaning to me. As a nurse, a father, and a friend, when I needed a best friend, a cheerleader, or a shoulder to cry on…I too turned to my child life specialists. In a city and a country that bangs pots and pans to recognize health care workers and health care heroes, know that my heart beats a loud drum for all of you, not just at 7pm, but always (roughly 60-100 beats per minute).

Child life specialists are real life angels that spend every waking moment focusing on improving the lives and experiences of hospitalized children and those that work with them. When the children left the hospital, I felt us “lose” something. It wasn’t really about the kids, but the laughter. The laughter of a child that echoed through the hallways. A laugh that was initiated by the kindness, generosity, love, and overall silliness that only child life can provide. The staff working at the bedside needed those laughs, love, and support too. My friend Bailey and all the child life specialists helped restore the soul of a hospital when we needed it the most. You are all too often overlooked and in the shadows. I wanted to let you know for all the work you have done in the past, in crisis, and in the future, for every smile you put on a child, a parent, or a coworker, know that there are nurses out there supporting you too. We love you and will gladly sing your praises from the rooftops, and our hearts beat a drum of love and support for you always.

With Greatest Love and Appreciation,
Kevin Xuereb