Hospitals pay special attention to help kids adjust to medical settings
Chelsea Acock hands a miniature plastic anesthesia mask to 8-year-old Aaron Musta, who curiously eyes the device just like the one that will be used during his upcoming hernia surgery.
“It goes over your nose and around your mouth,” Acock tells Aaron, of Venetia, Washington County, as he holds the “buddy doll” he will take to surgery. “All you have to do then ... is take a deep breath.
“You are safe the whole time,” Acock, a certified child-life specialist, reassures Aaron. “The doctors go to school for years and years and years.”
Aaron — accompanied by his mom, Annette Musta, and big sister, Aemilia, 10 — was taking a Same Day Surgery Tour offered at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville. This is a program that helps prepare both parents and children for an upcoming surgery.
Going on a tour like this is one of the ways parents can reassure both themselves and their children when the young ones are facing a hospitalization — a scary thought, whether for an illness or injury. The key to calming and reassuring a child, experts say, is acting calm yourself as the parent, even if you don't feel it. That's not to say you can't be honest, though, and express empathetic concern, experts say.
“If you're upset, you can say, ‘I'm really upset that you had this accident, but we're in this together and we're a team, and the doctors are going to help.' It's always better to be honest,” says Nancy Keene, author of “Your Child in the Hospital: A Practical Guide for Parents.”
“A lot of how well children do has to do with the tone of the parents,” says Keene, a former paramedic who lives in Bellingham, Wash.
Parents also should answer a child's questions honestly and matter-of-factly, at an age-appropriate level, says Keene and Dr. Ben Miller, assistant professor of pediatrics at the Paul C. Gaffney Diagnostic Specialty Service at Children's Hospital. A young child doesn't need to know the details of a cancerous tumor or other illness, but the parent can simply say that a part of the child's body isn't working right, and that the doctor is going to fix it, Miller says.
And if something is going to hurt your child, don't say it won't hurt, Keene says. Just remind your child that you will be right there for comfort. Offer to hold your child's hand, sing a song, or do whatever else the child prefers.
Parents should do their research on their child's condition so they can answer questions, Miller says.
“One of the things that can probably ease children's anxiety the most is when parents are educated about what's going to happen when they get here,” Miller says. “That way, they can give the children some sense of what to expect.”
Miller says that parents should discourage any feelings of guilt in their kids, who sometimes feel responsible for illnesses and feel they are a punishment. However, if a child's hospital visit stems from an injury caused by a child's bad choice — like engaging in horseplay at a swimming pool — parents can gently reinforce why it is important to follow the rules.
Parents should take advantage of preview programs hospitals offer to families, like the surgery-preparation tours, to help both them and their kids, says Beth Moneck, child life specialist II at the Pittsburgh Children's Hospital.
At the tours, families don't just walk around the hospital. They explore preparation rooms while employees explain what's going to happen and answer questions, and they can relax in the playroom. The younger the child is, the closer the staff wants to schedule the tour before the actual surgery, so the child doesn't have too much advance notice and too much time to worry. For older kids, tours usually happen a week before the surgery.
“We walk through any concerns they might have, and practice using anesthesia masks to breathe in air,” she says. “The younger the child, the more this is like a play experience.
“It's all about taking away the fear of the unknown,” she says. “When you don't know what's happening, that's when you're the most scared. ... It helps them become more in control of what is happening.”
Musta, 47, has a lot of experience with taking Aaron to hospitals, because her son has renal failure. She says that the tours help her and Aaron. She offers this advice to parents facing a hospitalization: “Stay calm and trust medical personnel. Learn as much as you can.”
Aaron says facing the surgery still is scary, but sounds less scary after the tour — especially after some fun time in the hospital's playroom.
Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7824.