Child Life specialist puts kids at ease

Amy Kennedy works with Zoë Harrison to prepare her for a procedure.

Amy Kennedy works with Zoë Harrison to prepare her for a procedure.

When I entered college at Kent State University in Ohio, I wanted to be a fashion designer. The school has one of the nation’s top fashion-design programs.

I soon learned that it wasn’t for me. The industry was too competitive, and I was looking for something more meaningful. I knew that I wanted to work with children in some way—maybe art education.

A native of St. Louis, I decided to enroll at Southwest Missouri State University (now known as Missouri State), where I made my way to the school’s child life program. It just clicked for me, and I found my career path. Earning a degree in child and family development. After working for three years at a children’s hospital in St. Louis, I joined St. Jude in June 1999.

I just celebrated my 20th year at St. Jude as a certified child life specialist. Since I’ve been here, the number of certified child life specialists has grown from three to 20 and two music therapists. I work in the Department of Radiation Oncology, where I support pediatric cancer patients undergoing radiation treatment.

In my work, I use developmentally sensitive methods to support children undergoing medical procedures. For example, a radiation mask, used to position patients for therapy, can be particularly scary for young children.

The unknown is a lot scarier than the known. I try to make procedures seem not so frightening or scary. I’ll encourage patients to inspect the mask, try it on.

Child life specialists at St. Jude also assist with end-of-life care. I’ve been invited into some very sacred moments. I remember a patient—a teenage girl—from more than a decade ago who died in the Intensive Care Unit.

The patient needed to be intubated. I helped prepare the patient for the procedure, which allowed her parents to meet briefly with doctors in a room near the ICU. When her parents returned, I helped the girl say her last words—a thank-you to her parents for all they had done for her.

In 2016, I was honored to be recognized by the Association of Child Life Professionals with the Mary Barkey Clinical Excellence Award. The annual award is given to an individual child life specialist who demonstrates exemplary child life care and a high level of clinical skill.

At first, my career didn’t go according to design. But I like to think I’ve created a perhaps less tangible work of art—a career supporting patients and families during the most difficult moments of their lives.

Amy Kennedy is a certified child life specialist in the Child Life Program at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

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