Janet is a "child life worker" at Children's Hospital in Washington. When she was a little girl, Janet caught a serious illness and had to spend a long time in the hospital while she got well. Now, years later, she remembers how bored and lonely she felt as she convalesced, or got better. When Janet grew up, she decided to work in one of the playrooms at Children's Hospital so that she could help kids have a better time than she did when she was sick.
Janet works in a special room where young people who have had operations on their bones, or who are recovering from accidents, can come to play games, draw, listen to music, or just sit around and chat. The room is a bright, cheerful place. Even children who can't get out of bed use the room. They're wheeled in, bed and all.
Doctors and nurses can come in -- but the only to visit. They can't take your temperature, give you a blood test or examine you while you're in the room.
Years ago, when Janet was in the hospital, there weren't any playrooms. "I stayed in my room all the time," she remembers. "I felt like everyone I knew had forgotten all about me.
"I imagined my friends and family outside the hospital having fun, and not thinking about me at all. Sometimes it made me mad. Other times it made me feel so unhappy that I cried."
The nurses at the hospital where Janet stayed were kind to her, she remembers. They tried to visit with her, and play games with her. But they were busy and couldn't stay in her room for long. Janet knew there were other children in the hospital, too -- but she never saw them. People took very good care of Janet's body as it grew stronger, but the hospital workers didn't have the time or energy to look after her other needs, like her need for fun, for laughter, and for learning.
At last, Janet got better and went home again. Before long, she was back in school. But it took time to catch up on her schoolwork, which was discouraging. Sometimes she felt tired and couldn't get her assignments done. When she went onto the playground, it seemed like her friends had forgotten about her. They had invented new games, and new jokes. It took time to feel like a part of things again -- although she finally did.
If Janet were a child today, she would find that most hospitals for children are very different from the gloomy place she remembers. There's a very good reason for that. In the 1940s, researchers working in hospitals studied sick children for several years. They found that kids who had to spend long periods of time in hospitals did get better -- but it happened very slowly. They seemed depressed. They didn't have much energy or appetite.
To try to solve this problem, many hospitals began special programs to make life more interesting and more fun for kids in hospitals. Doctors and social workers began to find that sick children who could spend some of their time with other kids got better faster. If you have ever been in the hospital, you know that there are times when you feel so miserable that you just want to be left alone. But as you get well, you begin to get interested in other things again. You want to play with other kids, or work on your schoolwork. At Children's Hospital, and at many other hospitals around the country, child life workers like Janet can help. These workers are trained to know that children in hospitals need attention. They need to have fun. And they need to interact with people who will be patient and understanding if they feel too weak to play, or get tired quickly.
If you have friends in the hospital, it's a good idea to keep in touch with them. Write them letters. Send them puzzles and games and posters. Call up and talk to them. Ask your parents if it's okay to visit them. And when they come back to school, remember that they'll feel out of it for a while. Try to include them in your activities, and be understanding if they seem a little tired or irritable. Child life programs have made hospital stays less difficult for kids today. Even so, recovering can take a long time. You can help. Tips for Parents
"In a hospital, families are often concerned about how to act -- and hospital staff are equally concerned about how to mobilize family concerns and skills in a positive way to help their sick child," says Dorothy Rich, founder and director of the Home and School Institute, a nonprofit educational organization.
Many school-age children in hospitals feel great anxiety about falling behind in school. Parents can help. While a full load of homework often isn't appropriate for a sick or injured youngster, he or she still needs stimulation, relief from boredom, and the feeling of mastery and control that can come from learning. The Home and School Institute has developed a program for parents (or grandparents, older siblings or friends) to use in a hospital or during an at-home convalescence. Three brief, eay-to-read books provide activities in math, reading, writing, social studies and science. A fourth book contains activities to help children deal with daily life -- from making change to communicating with other family members.
For more information, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to: The Home and School Institute, Special Projects, 1201 16th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036; 466-3633.