Eight-year-old Brenda Martinez didn’t feel much like talking a week into her hospital stay at Valley Children’s. The Delano girl was there after she rescued a younger sister from a dog attack; she was mauled in the process.
But her spirits changed when the Child Life department at the hospital arranged back-to-back visitors.
First, Tia Kem, a Child Life specialist, asked Brenda to draw pictures of one of her favorite dogs back home, a Chihuahua named Daisy.
“Have you heard a Chihuahua laugh?” Kem asked.
Brenda’s face lit up.
Then hospital volunteer Sue Bissell entered Brenda’s room with therapy dog Lucy, a West Highland white terrier. After introductions, Lucy lay in bed with Brenda, who petted and fed the dog as if they had long been friends. After awhile, it was hard to tell who was more relaxed as Lucy started to doze off. Brenda smiled at Lucy’s blinking eyelids.
Several days later, Brenda was released.
Child Life had fulfilled its mission to help children understand and cope with hospitalization. It uses 11 specialists who provide education, play and emotional support for patients and their families. The department also has four assistants who oversee the Child Life playroom and educational learning center, and it enlists the help of hundreds of volunteers.
It has been 50 years since Child Life founder Susan Shervem started at the old Valley Children’s Hospital as a nurses aide. She saw a need to help children cope with long hospital stays through play and education.
“People see us as a ‘play’ person,” said Mary Beth Jones, supervisor of Child Life. “They see us with toys and think we play. Each toy is chosen with a purpose. Laughter is good medicine. Playing is how a child understands.”
Every day, specialists talk with nurses to find out patient needs. Then, they meet with Jones in the playroom to map out plans for the day.
Brenda came to Valley Children’s on Feb. 10. She was trying to tie up her brother’s red-nose pitbull that had gotten loose. On her way to the tie-up post, Brenda stopped in front of sister Celeste, 7, who was scared and screamed. The dog bit Celeste on her thigh and arm. Brenda picked up a metal pipe and fought off the dog, telling Celeste to run for safety.
Both girls were brought to the hospital. Celeste was released after five nights.
Kem, who has a master’s of science in child life from the University of LaVerne, has worked in the Child Life department for about a year and a half. She was educated about Brenda’s diagnosis. Brenda required skin grafts for dog bites on both legs. She also was scratched on her back. Kem also studied Brenda’s developmental needs.
During Kem’s visit with Brenda, she squatted at the bedside so she could look Brenda in the eyes. Kem talked calmly, using words Brenda could understand and posing questions to better understand Brenda’s feelings about therapy.
“Brenda doesn’t talk a lot normally, but she feels comfortable talking with the Child Life specialist,” said Brenda’s mother, Maria Martinez.
Kem believed Brenda was ready for a visit from the therapy dog.
Bissell explained to Brenda that 7 1/2-year-old Lucy is a freeway rescue: “They threw her away on a freeway. I stopped the car and said, ‘Get in here.’ ”
Bissell also told Brenda that there are both good dogs and naughty dogs, and she encouraged Brenda to check out books about dogs.
“You might even grow up to be a dog trainer, for dogs to be good to people,” Bissell said.
Bissell taught Brenda how to come up to dogs: “Let them sniff you.”
About that time, Lucy started to doze off and licked Brenda’s left arm.
On the same day, Child Life had also arranged for the Fresno Pacific University women’s basketball team to play with patients in the playroom. The players divided into morning and afternoon shifts.
In the morning, Erisha Talley and Dakota McLarnan helped Adrian Salazar, 4, with a globe maze game.
Assistant coach John Bonner said Child Life plays an important role helping patients.
“Fresno Pacific is about building relationships with the community,” he said. “It’s about staying humble. It’s good for children here, but also for players to experience something different. We want players to know that despite what they go through, there are others who are worse off.”