Family support extending beyond patient care

When the holidays roll around, special care is needed for families who can't celebrate at home. The folks at Child Life help meet that need.

Family support extending beyond patient care click to enlarge Stephanie Mazze and Carrie Starnes

Stephanie Mazze and Carrie Starnes sit in a sunny room on the seventh floor of N.C. Children’s Hospital. The room, adjacent to the Look Out! Terrace on the roof of the hospital, is typically used for games and a place for patients and families to relax.

This time of year, though, it transforms into a holding area for hundreds of toys and gifts for UNC Children’s patients and families. Chairs and tables are pushed aside to make room for Barbie dolls, board games, lightsabers and more – it almost looks like something out of the North Pole.   

Mazze and Starnes are Child Life Specialists at N.C. Children’s Hospital. Both provide a variety of services to patients and families including psychosocial support, play and activities to help with coping and healing, and support before, during and after procedures.

“Essentially, we help and support the family with the overall coping process and adjustment to hospitalization,” Starnes said. “We want to make sure the kids know what to expect, what they may see, hear and feel, all with the goal of improving their coping skills and compliance.”

Starnes and Mazze said there is no typical day in their jobs, particularly during the holiday season, when gifts and support pour in from the community and beyond.

“There are so many elves in this hospital and in our community,” said Mazze. “This room we’re in – and others – will be full. There are additional visits from volunteers and more donations. We help manage those donations and visits and work closely with nurses on each floor to make sure everything is well-coordinated for our families. It’s all part of providing support to patients and families during a difficult time.”

In early December, patients and their families across UNC Children’s – both inpatient and outpatient clinics – receive gifts as a result of donor generosity. Those gifts and donations help support patients and families for nearly the entire upcoming year.

“Whether we’re supporting a family through paying for their utility bills and groceries, getting a new toy to a younger child or a gift card to an older child, we work very hard with our social workers to make sure everyone has a warm and safe place to spend the holidays,” Mazze said.

“We get to see the generosity and the beauty of the season at its purest,” Starnes said. “For families who are here at the hospital – it’s really difficult – but I think it’s a big part of the coping process for them to feel the joy and selflessness this time of year, often out of the generosity of people they’ll never meet.”

Mazze added that the generosity of donors not only makes it possible to give families holiday joy in the hospital, it also makes the important work of family and patient support possible.

“My job is donor-funded, so experiencing this season of giving is very personal for me,” she said. “Child life specialists have a big impact on patient and family satisfaction – we can walk into a room where a child is refusing to comply with what a nurse is asking, and in a few quiet minutes, we can often turn the situation around and help the child feel proud of what they’ve accomplished, rather than afraid.”

UNC Children’s currently has a team of 12 child life specialists who help patients and families across all specialties at the hospital. The program has expanded over the years thanks to generous donor support, and Starnes and Mazze said there is still room for growth.

“We want to grow and provide more support to other areas of the hospital and our clinics, with the ultimate goal of helping families be better advocates and communicators for their children,” Mazze said. “We’re that support, that listening ear, and that’s a really special privilege.”

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