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Getting It Right…or Wrong: Child Life Portrayed in Medical Drama vs. Real Life

By Ashley Bain, BS, CCLS  

When I come home after a long day at the hospital, I want to relax and watch medical dramas –no shocker there. But what is shocking is when you see your own profession portrayed in a hit television series. From 1994 to 2009, the hit medical drama ER captivated TV audiences, and for a total of five episodes child life is portrayed and brought into viewers’ homes.  

Seeing my profession grace the TV screen made me excited; even if it was just through the Max app, it was still neat to see child life with an older medical drama. Maybe someday newer medical shows will catch on with child life services. Knowing that nothing is perfect in a TV world, I honestly didn’t know how I expected my profession to be portrayed, but I knew it wouldn’t be 100% accurate. I still gave it a chance and was excited nonetheless to see how the lady with the “bubbles” was portrayed. In this article we will look at how our role is seen on TV vs. real life and analyze what the show gets right and wrong about our profession. 

Interprofessional Collaboration

In season 7, episode 15, “The Crossing,” the audience is first introduced to Rena Trujillo, a child life intern. Rena is educating a patient regarding their IV placement. We see her using a shadow doll and placing the IV catheter properly within the doll’s arm. All the while the patient is calm as he takes his breathing treatment and observes child life. Later, we see Dr. John Carter meeting Rena and inquiring about her role. He says they could have used her earlier when the mom was upset. They have a short conversation when Carter makes an off the wall comment about her “voodoo doll” and wanting a large one due to loneliness.  

While our role as child life specialist is important, how many times does what we do get mistaken for fun (or made fun of in this instance) and not taken seriously? Unfortunately, I felt as though this was very accurate when watching these episodes. Even those who are seasoned child life specialists still get the brunt of obscure jokes or comments from the medical staff.  

Throughout the run of ER, we see children with different diagnosis and injuries. However, child life is not called when a child needs psychosocial support, even on a medical drama. For example, in Season 7 episode 17, “Survival of the Fittest,” we see Dr. Carter and Nurse Abby attempting to hold a child down for labs. Abby asks Carter about a papoose board, and Carter thinks they will be okay, asking Abby to hold the patients arm still. This however backfires, and the child screams “Noooo!” and begins kicking. Carter decides that they need a break, not thinking of calling Rena to provide support. Unfortunately, the writers had this written correctly. How many times do us as child life specialist get brushed aside because people think, “We can do it faster without you.” The show takes this interaction with the patient a step further, demonstrating the effectiveness of child life practice, when Carter observes   Rena distracting the patient with bubbles. Rena says that the nurses called for support for the patient, which allows Carter to not only observe child life providing developmentally appropriate distraction but obtaining the labs with ease as the child continues to blow bubbles. Even in a TV show, we must prove ourselves to the medical staff.  

Pathway to the Profession

Each episode presents child life in a different light, even if it isn’t for very long. For instance, in Rena’s second episode, season 7 episode 16, “Witch Hunt,” we see her getting breakfast with Dr. Carter at a local diner, in which he mistakes her for a pediatric intern after she says she went to a lecture regarding developmental psychology. Rena corrects Carter, saying she is an undergraduate completing a child life internship in the pediatric department. She states that the internship consists of 480 hours of clinical supervision for her to become certified. The writers of this episode did get the child life criteria correct for the timing of this event. Back in 2001, the clinical internship required 480 hours, but looking at this episode nowadays we know that the information is obsolete and the hours required are 600. Furthermore, the writers get the timeline wrong regarding the character’s age and how long the overall process takes to become a Certified Child Life Specialist. In this episode, Rena tells Carter that she will be 20 years old later in the year. Unless one graduates from high school being the youngest in their class (at sixteen) one cannot become a CCLS by the time they are 20, not even back in 2001.  

Finally, during the duration of Rena’s time on ER, you never witness her supervisor. We know that as child life professionals we do not let our students/interns practice on their own without proper training and supervision. Now it could be Rena is further along in her internship, but looking at certain dialogue says otherwise. “I figured if I start now, I will be done by the time I graduate.” (Season 7-episode 16 Witch Hunt). This indicates that maybe the internship is part-time, or that she is newer to the hospital and just starting out, but we don’t know for sure. We do know that in the previous episode (The Crossing) that Rena was first introduced as an intern. So therefore, not enough time has elapsed for Rena to be on her own. One can simply know what to say and present, but that doesn’t mean they should be on their own yet.  

Final Thoughts

A writer myself, I feel as though the writers of ER scratched the surface when it came to child life. Compared to that of the rest of the medical staff and how they were portrayed. In the end, we know nothing is presented 100% in a TV show. It is, after all, just something that provides entertainment for 30-60 minutes. How can everything be given as accuracy in a fictional TV show all the time? It can’t be (even TV shows like a medical drama have their faults—obviously). But when we as child life specialists advocate for our own profession and how we wish to be perceived, that is where we draw the line between fiction and fact.  

SPOILER ALERT! Rena ends up leaving with a doctor that we never meet after just five episodes. That was some fast internship! You can watch ER either on Disney+ or the Max app.  

*Rena is also in episodes 18 and 19 of season 7. 

Reference List  

Crichton, M. (2001a, February 22). ER/The Crossing. Episode 15.  

Crichton, M. (2001b, March 1). ER/Witch Hunt. Episode 16.  

Crichton, M. (2001c, March 29). ER/Survival of the Fittest. Episode 17. 

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