Helping Children Cope in the Hospital

KRH’s first child-life specialist uses play-based therapy and a whole-family approach to assist young patients through traumatic times

By Myers Reece
Amy Rohyans Stewart, child-life specialist coordinator at the Montana Children's Medical Center, blows bubbles in a corridor of the hospital on Aug. 14. Bubbles are one of many tools Rohyans Stewart uses when working with young patients. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Amy Rohyans Stewart, the first-ever child-life coordinator at Kalispell Regional Healthcare, said her profession’s overriding mission is to help kids cope during their hospital stay, an experience that can be scary, traumatic, confusing and painful.

Rohyans Stewart is there to provide tools that not only assist both the patients and their families during their time in the hospital but also afterward. To do so, she uses her own tools, rooted in play-based therapy: games, medical-themed toys, development-appropriate euphemistic terminology for health care procedures and devices, and more.

While the ability to choose the best tool stems from her deep well of professional knowledge derived from a career in the field, she also knows a simple truth that any parent knows: “Bubbles are magic.”

“You can’t go wrong with bubbles,” she says.

Rohyans Stewart came from St. Luke’s Children’s Hospital in Boise in the spring to launch KRH’s child-life program at the new Montana Children’s Medical Center. On a recent August morning, she was excitedly laying out her vision for both the program at large and its specific area in the pediatric center, which she plans to deck out with a play medical set along with her assortment of toys, books and games.

Child-life specialists like Rohyans Stewart are trained in child development “to understand the different ways children process their emotions in stressful situations,” according to the hospital, and “provide age-appropriate therapeutic play, education and psychological preparation for procedures, focused sibling support and much more in order to reduce fear, anxiety and pain for children and families.”

“The ultimate goal is when kids are coping well, they have a tendency to get better faster, to be more compliant with their medicine and physical therapy,” Rohyans Stewart said. “Ultimately our hope is they will go home faster. We meet kids where they are so we can get them where they need to be.”

Rohyans Stewart said she seeks to calm the environment for the kids, establish trust and rapport, validate their feelings and offer choices, noting that patients “lose control over almost everything in their world” the minute they step into the hospital. They are told what procedure is going to happen and when, and their stay follows a plan that is out of their hands.

“But when we offer play for kids, they get to be in control,” she said. “They get to have the power. We really advocate for those choices so they have some control over their environment.”

While working directly with the patient is paramount, Rohyans Stewart takes a full-family approach. Parents and siblings can also feel overwhelmed during a medical crisis or hospital stay.

“We can’t singularly take care of a patient without also taking care of the family,” she said. “Vicarious stress is alive and well in a hospital environment. We have to work with the whole family unit to come to a good place for coping.”

Rohyans Stewart also heavily stresses preparation, meeting children at their development level to explain procedures. That means using “soft language” to break down the intimidating walls of medical jargon: a catheter is a “soft bendy tube,” a tourniquet is a “tight rubber band” and an alcohol swab is “cold stinky soap.”

“We bring that language down to where they’re going to understand it best,” she said.

The program has also received word that it will get funding to obtain virtual-reality headsets to aid children during procedures.

Rohyans Stewart says she has been impressed with the collaborative atmosphere and widespread understanding of her profession at the children’s center, a partnership that she says is vital to good patient outcomes.

“It’s in complete and 100 percent collaboration with the medical team,” she said. “What is beautiful about this institution is that there’s a mutual respect for our professions and there’s value placed in the psychosocial care of children. That’s what creates the magic. I feel like I’ve won the lottery here.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.