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Using Technology to Calm the Youngest of Patients

Almost as quickly as the worried look came upon her face it disappeared, replaced with what could be described as a little bit of excitement, even though she was in the hospital. In the new Dorothy B. Hersh Pediatric Emergency Department (ED) at The Children's Hospital at Saint Peter's University Hospital, the doctor and medical team were preparing to stick a needle in her left arm. But the little girl with all the pigtails chuckled in reaction to the video playing on the iPad screen. Bending down by her side was Michelle McCann, CCLS, the new pediatric ED certified child life specialist. Within seconds it seemed, and without her crying, the IV was in her arm. A round of high-fives was shared.

July 2013 Community Calendar

Child Life Specialist Michelle McCann (center) uses an iPad in the Saint Peter's Pediatric Emergency Department.

Needing medical treatment in a hospital emergency department can be a frightening experience, especially for a child. Along with the pain and fear of the injury or illness, there is confusion and the buzz of activity. While physicians and the expert team of emergency medicine professionals treat children, McCann, a full-time, specially-trained certified child life specialist, uses technology to help young patients and their families deal with the stress of a visit to the ED. And the iPad - along with other traditional toys - has become a tool in caring for children in the ED.

"By supporting patients and families in the ED, helping them learn about procedures and treatments, and helping them to understand what the nurses and doctors are doing, I can help them adjust to the ED environment, which may be the first exposure they've had to a hospital," explains McCann. "The iPad is especially helpful for the younger children who tend to be fearful, yet are very receptive to fun activities."

McCann's iPad is loaded with age- specific games, as well as mobile apps that explain procedures such as ear or eye scopes. The tablet is also loaded with videos that explain what it's like to undergo an X-ray, a CT (computed tomography) scan, an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan or an ultra- sound. "They can see what the room and camera look like and hear how they sound, and this helps to prepare them for these experiences," she says.

Outside of the ED at Saint Peter's, other child life specialists also use technology to help ease anxiety and to help kids feel comfortable while in the hospital. Specialists use video game systems such as WiiTM and Xbox, DVD and music players, and the dozen or so iPads and laptops that are available for the kids to use. "The goal is to normalize the child's life," says Kristal Neal, the Child Life Program coordinator at Saint Peter's. "And this therapeutic approach works in conjunction with the medical aspects of treatment to help them heal."

More traditional toys also are used by the child life specialists and other members of their team. In the hospital's pediatric units, children are encouraged to play drums and guitar by a certified music therapist, and the artists who volunteer with the ArtWorks Foundation paint with children at bedside and in the hospital's play area. As in the Emergency Department, child life specialists in the pediatric units play with the children with specially designed dolls called SurgiDolls. The specific type of play they enjoy is referred to as medical play.

For example, if a child is receiving sutures in the ED, McCann will bring out the SurgiDoll so the child can touch its sutures, and explore "play" medical equipment, all in an attempt to alleviate fear.

"Many times, children are in distress in the presence of the medical staff or when using medical equipment. I provide medical play using my medical toys and equipment in order to help children become more familiar with the equipment, and ultimately, relieve anxiety and fear, as well as to educate patients as to why we do what we need to do," says McCann. "Sometimes what kids need most is a diversion, and of course, comforting."


 To learn more about the Child Life Program at The Children's Hospital at Saint Peter's University Hospital, call 732-565-KIDS(5437), ext. 7846. To read about Child Life and to watch our YouTube video about the program, visit