CONVERSATIONS WITH… A Child Life Therapist

Fadzilah uses various playthings to ease the fears of her young patients who are terrified of their impending ops.

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Any kind of surgery is bound to turn your little one into a quivering bundle of anxiety. Not surprisingly, their loved ones feel the same kind of apprehension and concern, too. This is where Fadzilah Kamsin, a senior child life therapist at the National University Hospital comes in. As a child life therapist, she uses play as a tool to help patients cope with their health-related fears and anxieties.

Therapeutic-play support strategies are utilised to calm her patients, who range from babies to adolescents. Also known as medical play, it uses make-belief and imagination to help these ailing children understand their treatment procedures. Her anxiety-busting “arsenal” features tools for patients of different ages. For instance, she’ll explain using bubbles for toddlers and tablets for the older kids.

Fadzilah explains, “Through medical play, we will be able to assess their understanding of their illness and treatment, as well as [look for] any signs of fear, anxiety or any misconceptions they might have about their illness.”

Medical play uses make-belief and imagination to help these ailing children understand their treatment procedures.

For example, to get a diabetic child to grasp his need for regular insulin injections, she lets him use replicas of the real thing — such as a syringe without the needle — to administer jabs on dolls or teddy bears. Besides conducting play sessions, Fadzilah also helps patients with chronic illnesses to overcome emotional problems like low self-esteem. She also helps her charges come to terms with regressive conditions or who are grieving about a sibling’s poor health.

You mentioned using “distraction tools” to divert your patients’ attention during painful procedures. What are these?
Distraction tools [can vary] based on the developmental age of the patient. For toddlers, we use cause-and-effect toys with light and sound, bubbles and picture books. For preschool children, we use tablets, books, toys or the child’s object of interest. For patients who are of Primary school age and above, we use tablets, or talk to them about a topic of interest, use guided imagery or [have them] listen to music.

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What are the challenging parts of your job?
While providing support for parents with sick infants, I've seen parents who were unable to touch and caress their babies because of their infants' critical condition. As these babies are placed in incubators and attached to machines and tubes, their parents are unable to [hold or bond with] their sick infants till they die.

It saddens me that these babies, who yearn to be soothed and calmed through touch, [can't] be carried by their parents. The parents' only hope may be for their little one to see the light of day. It's [also] challenging and saddens me to see [infants or toddlers] crying in pain when they are unable to make sense of what is going on.

"Despite the pain he was suffering and the chronic illness and permanent disabilities he’ll be living with…he taught me about selflessness by placing others’ needs before his own.”

Was there a particular work experience that’s left a deep impression on you?
I was seeing a boy who was to undergo his seventh surgery. He was feeling anxious about it, so to give him some encouragement, we decided to do a wish box that he can open once he woke up after surgery. The boy wrote down three wishes that he placed in the box. Although he was feeling anxious and worried, all his wishes were for his family’s happiness, none were for himself. He was worried that his chronic illness had caused his family’s financial burden and much worry. Despite the pain he was suffering and the chronic illness and permanent disabilities he’ll be living with ― not forgetting the painful treatments he underwent ― he taught me about selflessness by placing others’ needs before his own.

What keeps you going?
Knowing that my role helps to inject some hope and joy for patients and parents as they are battling their child’s illness.

Complete this: You often tell your patients…
The power to calm themselves when they are fearful and anxious is within them; they can do so through breathing. As they breathe, they will be able to take control of their bodies and their fear.

You are happiest when…
Patients and their parents are able to smile again. With the stress of managing their children’s illness, parents sometimes forget to smile or forget how their children look when they are smiling.

Fadzilah Kamsin is a senior child life therapist at the National University Hospital.

Photos: National University Hospital

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