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Child Life Helping to Create Smiles

Have you ever thought about using your child life skills in an alternative setting? A place that can have a life changing impact on both the child and the specialist? My dear friend and colleague of mine took that adventure through Operation Smile.

Here is Erin’s Story: 

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Every child deserves a smile. It seems like an obvious statement but for a child born with facial deformities a smile is a big deal. This is the driving force behind Operation Smile. Operation Smile is a volunteer medical organization that travels the world to perform left lip, cleft palate and facial deformities surgery for those who would otherwise be unable to obtain those services. In many countries and cultures there are serious stigmas around facial deformities.

The organization and child life’s role within it was brought to my attention by Cindy Rodriguez, the coordinator of the child life department where I work at Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York. While I love the department, unit and hospital in which I work I was excited about the opportunity to use my skills to give back. It also was an opportunity for me to hone my core child life skills of therapeutic play, preparation and support minus all the bells and whistles of a modern American hospital.

Almost all missions have a child life specialist as a member of the approximately 75 person team. The first few days are the screening days. Patients are assessed by all facets of the team to see if they are appropriate for surgery. Some families wait at the hospital for days to be seen by the team. So while I did a lot of medical play I also did distraction/normalization play to help reduce the anxiety and make the wait more comfortable.

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There are then about five OR days where my responsibility was to run the playroom, prep the kids for surgery, accompany some of the teens into surgery when they were having a procedure under local anesthetics and use play as distraction post procedurally since pain medication is not readily available.

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There were American and Kenyan high school students on the mission who help run the playroom. Thank goodness for them! We also had local high school students translating for us but I tried to use my tools and play because you never quite sure how things are getting translated.

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At the end of the ten days I was so thankful for the amazing experience Operation Smile provided me. I was fortunate to volunteer with a mainly Kenyan team and learned so much about the culture.

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Can you see yourself volunteering through Operation Smile or a similar organization?

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