Child Life in Action

in a Cardiac Unit with Hanna Bratt, CCLS, CTRS

by Bea Wikander | February 20, 2018


Hanna first learned about child life when she was studying psychology in college. A professor recommended she look into the field because of her interest in understanding and supporting people, particularly children. She started as a volunteer to see if a hospital environment would be a good fit, which it was, and then pursued a practicum. Hanna completed her internship at Inova Children's Hospital in Fairfax, VA, in 2011 and became certified in 2012. She's worked at Inova ever since and loves her chosen profession.

Using a customized teaching doll, Hanna shows patients the tubes and lines they will see when they come out of surgery, so their post-op state does not come as a shock.

Congenital heart disease is the number one birth defect in children, and as a cardiac floor specialist, Hanna works with patients of all ages. Many people with congenital heart disease are diagnosed prenatally, at birth, or soon after, so many of the patients Hanna sees are quite young. Often these patients continue to visit the heart clinic on a regular basis, and Hanna is able to develop relationships over time. She also sees young adults, who continue to be cared for in pediatrics if they have congenital heart issues. 

One of the reasons Hanna loves her job is because of the challenge of understanding and connecting with patients of all ages, who come to the cardiac unit with a diverse set of emotional needs and life experiences. Sometimes she works with toddlers who struggle to understand the purpose behind the tubes and the poking and prodding or who may not know how to express fear, pain, or frustration. Children this age are also particularly impacted by their loss of independence (walking or using the bathroom, for example) because, unlike most adults, they have vivid, recent memories of working hard to achieve those developmental milestones. Working with teenagers provides a different set challenges. Teens struggle with a lack of freedom, contact with peers, and the sudden dependence on parents and the healthcare team for basic needs. For some, heart surgery is the first major medical procedure of their lives (or that they remember), and many begin to reflect on their own mortality. Hanna thinks it's especially important for teens to understand what to expect from surgery and the recovery. 

When a child needs heart surgery, Hanna is there every step of the way. She prepares and educates the patient about what to expect and offers support during pre-op procedures like EKGs and lab work. Using a customized teaching doll, Hanna shows patients the tubes and lines they will see when they come out of surgery, so their post-op state does not come as a shock. Hanna’s role continues after surgery, when she helps with pain management, advocates for relaxation techniques and comfort measures, and offers encouragement during the recovery process.

Hanna’s role supporting children and families doesn’t end when the patient is discharged from the hospital. She also organizes an annual cardiac picnic attended by families with children who have had heart surgery at Inova as well as the entire cardiac healthcare team. The picnic is an opportunity for families who have been through similar experiences to socialize, for parents to express gratitude for the medical care their children received, and for Hanna and her colleagues to see former patients returning to normal life and activity.

Child Life Profession