Child Life in Action

in Ambulatory Surgery, Radiology, & a Healthcare Workers Union with Jon Luongo, MA, CCLS

by Bea Wikander | December 1, 2020 

Jon and colleagues

Jon Luongo, MA, CCLS, works as a child life specialist at Maimonides Infant & Children’s Hospital of Brooklyn, where he provides procedural support in the radiology and ambulatory surgery units.

Before discovering child life, Jon was a professional hospital clown in Seattle and New York City with Big Apple Circus/Clown Care®. After observing a child life specialist encourage a patient to paint with “peanut butter” (i.e., dipping a Q-tip in a sterile iodine solution and applying it over a port-a-cath), Jon was intrigued by the child life profession and the powerful combination of play and applied child development expertise.

Jon decided to pursue a master’s degree in child life from Bank Street College, but he was planning to continue his career as a hospital clown after graduation. He ultimately decided to become a full-time child life specialist and credits Deb Vilas, Troy Pinkney-Ragsdale, and Meghan Kelly with providing invaluable mentorship along his journey.

The peanut butter moment is one of several experiences that have redefined Jon’s understanding of child life. When he was interning in ambulatory surgery, he and his supervisor provided distraction and comfort care before a patient went under anesthesia, and he left the room thinking their job was done. When the patient’s parent broke down in tears, Jon observed his supervisor respond empathically and share a photo of the child that was taken earlier in the day. That seemingly simple moment led to an expanded understanding of the scope and challenges of the profession—that the work goes beyond procedural support and even beyond the patient. In that moment, Jon realized his child life career was going “to stretch him beyond anything he’d done professionally so far.”

"There are around 6,500 employees
at Jon’s hospital,
and more than 3,000
are in his union." 

In his 13 years at Maimonides, Jon has focused on procedural support in ambulatory surgery and radiology. One memorable incident in Jon’s career involved a ten-year-old boy who needed a fluoroscopy barium enema and was very resistant and scared. The boy’s father yelled at his son to “man up,” and Jon felt especially motivated, as a male CCLS and father, “to step into that moment and respond empathically—to address the father man to man, father to father.” No one in the room wanted to make eye contact with the father after that outburst, but Jon was able to channel one of his mentors, Deb Vilas, and responded by saying, “I know it’s important to you that your son behave in front of the doctors. This is a very challenging test, and we know that you and your son, your whole family, are doing your best in a challenging situation.” He was able to support the family and diffuse tension, and the boy was able to successfully undergo the procedure.

As a man in a profession dominated by women (men make up approximately 1.9% of Certified Child Life Specialists), Jon is technically a minority; although male CCLSs are rare, he is not, as a white man, a targeted group in the workplace. Gender inclusion is certainly an aspect of diversity, however, and Jon has been in the position to notice certain gender-specific trends in the types of procedural support handled by one gender versus another.

In radiology, he noticed that male techs avoided doing voiding cystourethrograms (VCUGs). These and other challenging and invasive procedures on children were expected to be handled by female techs, or at least that is what happened in practice. Procedures were occasionally delayed because of this. Jon’s mere presence as a male CCLS challenged some of these gender-specific distinctions and was “an opportunity to improve healthcare just by being there.”

Jon’s support of equity and inclusion extends beyond his role as a CCLS. For the past five years, he has been a delegate in his healthcare workers union, 1199 SEIU (United Healthcare Workers East). SEIU 1199 is one of the largest unions in the country and represents home healthcare workers, nursing home workers, and certain hospital workers. Founded in 1932 as a New York City drugstore workers’ union, SIEU1199 now represents healthcare workers in five states and Washington, D.C.

Jon views his union work as a natural extension of his child life practice given that “family-centered care has always been political” and “a union is essentially a civil rights organization.” There is also a common thread of providing and advocating for dignity. Child life specialists advocate for dignity and truth-telling in scenarios, such as procedures and hospitalization, that often strip people of control. For example, a child life specialist might offer a child the choice either to walk to the operating room or ride on a gurney. In a different context, union membership encourages employees to find dignity in their work by banding together to advocate for structural changes, such as safer staffing ratios, and offering solidarity and support. 

"Family-centered care 
has always been 

"A union is essentially a civil rights organization." 

The economic value of being in a union is significant. Unions fight for fair compensation, healthcare benefits, and traditional pensions. Beyond these important financial considerations, unions represent and champion dignity in the workplace. Jon explains, “At its core, a union is a group of workers who are seeking and finding greater dignity—economic dignity as well as all sorts of dignity—in this major way in which we spend our lives, which is working.” Unfortunately, many child life specialists are unaware of how union membership can enhance job security, professional dignity, and pay equity.

Jon has read in the ACLP Forum of child life specialists who have to verify if the census is high enough to allow them to report to work, a practice that marginalizes child life as a per diem job. If child life specialists are not given the dignity and compensation they deserve, they cannot pay back student loans, pay their rent, or support their families.

COVID-19 has highlighted the security and stability unions can provide. Unlike the experience of some child life specialists during the pandemic, Jon and his child life colleagues were always considered essential workers, and union membership played a role in this designation. The focus and scope of Jon’s child life practice changed during the pandemic; he switched to the inpatient unit during the height of pandemic and saw patients one-on-one because the play room was closed, but he never stopped working and he received hazard pay, thanks to 1199 advocacy efforts. Jon’s manager also advocated for child life, and her support combined with the clout of the union helped ensure Jon and his colleagues were never furloughed, marginalized, or reassigned.


1. Jones, Janelle, John Schmitt, and Nicole Woo. “Women, Working Families, and Unions.” Center for Economic and Policy Research. Center for Economic and Policy Research, June 2014.

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Child Life Profession