Child at Heart: Kelly Stewart

child life specialist

Kelly is from Cleveland, Ohio (Midwest is the best!). She moved out to San Francisco 7 years ago to get her Masters in Early Childhood Education with an Emphasis in Child Life at Mills College. After completing her Masters, and a challenging internship, she was rewarded by being offered as job at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital. She has had many roles at UCSF; Per Diem, Child Life Specialist in Radiology to where she is now, as a Child Life Specialist on the Medical/Surgical Unit. She may be biased, but she thinks being a Child Life Specialist is the best job in the world 🙂

When did you decide you wanted to be a Child Life Specialist? Why?

I was living in Cleveland at the time and was volunteering at the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital under the supervision of a Child Life Specialist. I was so intrigued by their role, and asked to shadow my supervisor. We did medical play, preparations for a procedure, and helped with an end of life. It was in those moments that I realized that the hospital doesn’t have to be this scary, sterile environment; it can be a place where children can learn about their diagnosis, master their coping and feel empowered during painful procedures. That’s the exact reason I went home that night and started researching and applying to master’s programs in Child Life.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

The favorite part of my job is not only helping to support patients and families, but working alongside the most amazing doctors, social workers, nurses, and the whole multidisciplinary team. You support each other and are with these team members more than you are at home, so at times, they seem like family. They are there with you when a patient has a poor prognosis, or when an IV goes really well with a very difficult patient, or when a NG goes all wrong and instead of being upset, you just need to laugh about it.

I could also name a million other reasons why I’m obsessed with my job. Watching a patient, who you helped with an IV so many times, and they have always struggled, and one day, you watch them utilize all the coping techniques that you have taught them for the past 3 admissions and they are successful. They feel empowered and in control and you left knowing that even if you can’t be there with them next time, you set them up for success and mastery.

What do you wish the world understood about your profession?

Honestly, I just wish that people understood that we aren’t just the “play people” or the “fun ones who have the toys.” We are much more than that – we are the teachers, the advocates, and yes, we are also the “ones who have toys” but our toys are used to teach patients that it is okay to still play in the hospital, or utilize “toys” for medical play to help a young child understand a procedure. We are all things, but we are not just the “fun ones who have toys”.

What kind of education and clinical experience is required for Child-Life Specialists? What are the various care settings CLS can work in?

As of 2019, all Child Life Specialists will need a Master’s degree in Child Life, or Child Development. Most Child Life Specialists already have a Master’s degree anyways. Then you need a 480 hour or 600 hour internship in order to be signed off and sit for the Child Life Certification Exam, which you must pass in order to work. There are Child Life Specialists in the Dentist office, Clinics, Inpatient, Outpatient, and with their own practice. We are an ever expanding field, and we would love to reach as many places as possible to help support patients and families.

I have to ask – Why didn’t you become a nurse? Do you think you could be one?

child life specialist

I actually never thought about becoming a nurse. I like not having to be the one who has to give the medication, or do the pokes. I truly, at times, feel like I could place an NG tube, do a PICC line, or kidney biopsy, or place an IV. I mean, let’s be honest, I probably couldn’t, but I see these procedures all day, every day and pretend like I could with a little help from a nurse 🙂

What were some of your first interactions with nurses like? What do your interactions with nurses now entail?

I feel like it’s been so long, I don’t really remember, but all I know and remember is that not all nurses are created equal haha. I’d say like 99% of the nurses I work with and have worked with in the past are pretty much some of the best people I know. There are, at times, the difficult ones who don’t fully understand our jobs, and because of that, decide they don’t want to call us for procedures, or support. Most of my interactions with nurses I have now is to find out when a procedure will be happening, what patient needs support, if family is at bedside, how the patient is coping, do labs need to be done, etc., and also just to see how the nurse is doing that day. I respect the nurses so much and know they won’t always be able to call, or are the last to know about a procedure, or something that is happening, but they are such hard workers and always on our team. Some of the nurses are not only just my coworkers, but also my friends, and people that I significantly rely on to get me through the days; to make me laugh, to feed me candy when I’m having an off day, and to make me smile when everything seems like it’s going wrong that day! (shoutout to Sarah for always being one of those amazing people/nurses!)

What impresses you most about nurses?

Their ability to handle so many things that are coming at them at once; families being challenging, child life specialists asking about timing for labs, procedures, etc., doctors requesting med changes, covering other nurses during breaks. Their flexibility and desire to help and support one another is so refreshing to see. They wear so many different hats, and even with a challenging patient or family, they provide them with the highest quality of care, and plant a smile on their face even when underneath it all they want to cry.

How do nurses make your job easier?

ALL THE WAYS!! They let us make a plan with the patient and keep the plan and wait till we can prepare the patients, even if it means they should be somewhere else, and they have to ask someone else to cover them. They are advocates just like us, and they will be on our team. It’s so helpful to have someone who is at the bedside just as much as us, because doctors and the medical team don’t always see the same things we do, since they aren’t at bedside in the same fashion as we are.

What’s something you didn’t know or weren’t able to appreciate about nurses until you worked alongside them?

How hardworking all nurses are and how much you care about the patients and families. We have these patients who come in and you have to give them the meds, and be the “bad guys” but at the end of the day, you provide such love, care and support to these patients, and make so many amazing relationships, that at the end of the day they don’t see you as the one giving them the meds or the scary procedures. They see the ones who care about them and have brought them an extra blanket when they are cold, held their hand when they are scared, bring them water when they are thirsty, call us so we can bring them items for distraction. You all work so hard, and work such long hours, but also provide some emotional support and communication that those patients need to feel successful in the hospital.

What’s one bit of advice you’d give a new Child Life Specialist about nurses?

Call them, support them, be friends with them, have them on your team. They are your biggest support, and advocate!! They will help you cope with work on the daily!!

What does the future of your career entail? What are the different career paths for a CLS?

The future for my career entails me continuing to work at UCSF, and then maybe one day having my own private practice to help support patients prior to coming into the hospital, helping to support end of life care and interventions in the patients home, and provide sibling support before they even come to the hospital.

I think Child Life is a role that is ever changing and extending. Who knows what will happen in years to come with our role, but my hope would to be in every doctor’s office, dentist office, anywhere kids have to go and experience something painful that could inflict trauma, so we can help build them up from the beginning; give them coping techniques, and help support mastery and control.

child life specialistHealthiest habit for work days: Taking some time in the day to hang out with coworkers, nurses, social workers, medical team and just laugh. Working in a hospital can be challenging, but taking some time to use humor to cope, or remove yourself from work can be so liberating!
My work mornings usually start with…Corepower yoga with my 2 coworkers/friends, and then all the coffee before the real day begins!
Go-to meal that I pack for work: Meal prep salads with a La Croix on the side and maybe a little popcorn if I’m feeling crazy haha
Favorite thing to do on a day-off: Workout, go out to eat, drink champagne…all the champagne
Favorite app: Instragram…stalking all day, every day
Clogs or sneakers? Sneakers
If I wasn’t a CLS, I would probably be.. a travel blogger!
Go-to choice of caffeine? Iced coffee
Sarah Gray
Sarah is a Pediatric Clinical Nurse III at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital and a UCSF 2017 Evidence Based Practice Fellow. A New Jersey native, Sarah graduated from Penn Nursing and has been living in San Francisco ever since. She's been an athlete her whole life and continues to be passionate about health, fitness, and making the most of all opportunities. She continues to harness her passion for innovation and process improvement in her role as Founding Clinician at Trusted Health.