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Experience as an intern during a global pandemic
When many of us become interested in the field of child life we don’t realize how many twists and turns it comes with. You may start out with a plan and end up with another one in a matter of seconds because well that’s child life. As students we are taught to prepare for the applications, to prepare for those tricky interview questions and how to cope with the unwanted rejections. For some of us it takes one round of applications while for others it takes a few. This is something many of us know when we start this journey. We prepare with books, lectures and contacting mentors so that we are fully prepared for what’s to come. We learn to expect the unexpected but 2020 brought on the complete unimaginable for students: a global pandemic.
I started my child life internship on January 13th, 2020 and it was everything I had waited for. I had previously been accepted as a Fall Intern, but due to contract issues I was pushed to Spring so this was a day that was a long time coming. I started my first rotation on Hematology/Oncology and just as any other intern can tell you those six weeks flew by. I learned more than I could have ever imagined and loved every second of it. With every port access, dressing change and therapeutic activity, I could feel myself growing more and more everyday. During my last two weeks on the unit when I was independent was when we first started hearing about the pandemic in China. We were told to just be cautious but I remember going into rooms and not finding the usual box of masks on the side cabinets and hearing nurses say “Another family took a box of masks”. There were a lot of things going on behind the scenes and people were starting to get nervous, but nothing major had changed.
After my first rotation I started a mini rotation in Med Surgery. At this time it was early March and the virus had made its way to New York and was quickly spreading. This was when things really started changing. All masks were removed from the rooms, volunteers were sent home and word was going around that students were next. I made jokes here and there about being sent home, but a part of me still didn’t believe that it would happen.
That first week of my mini-rotation I went in for a Saturday shift and that is when I truly felt the change coming. I was with the CCLS assigned to that Saturday and we were on our way to PICU for a consult. This patient was on droplet precautions so we needed to get a mask. We asked the nurse right outside the door for a mask. She informed us that they were only given one mask for the day and didn’t know where the boxes were. As we walked down the halls looking for a mask we saw nurses with their masks around their wrists and arms, making sure they held onto it for the day. We ended up having to go to another unit because no masks could be found in PICU. Once we walked over to the other unit those nurses told us the same thing. We had an entire conversation with the nurses about how quickly everything was changing and how we had spent the last ten minutes looking for masks. It wasn’t until the CCLS I was with said we were probably not going to be able to see the PICU patient that the Charge Nurse then pulled out a box of masks she was hiding in her desk to give us. This was the moment where it all became real to me.
I spent the next week on Med Surg where everyday we would hear more about how rapidly the virus was growing. The conversation of students being sent home was still happening but nothing official had been called. When I said goodbye to my preceptor that Friday I made a joke saying “Who knows if I will be back on Monday” and went home. That following Sunday on March 15th was when I got a call from my supervisor saying students were put on pause for two weeks. Little did I know that those two weeks would turn into seven months.
When I was first sent home I didn’t think it would only be two weeks, but I thought no more than a month. I spent those first two weeks just like everyone else. I caught up on sleep, caught up on TV shows and learned how to bake some new treats. Once my two weeks were up, on March 27th, I was told students were suspended until April 13th. As the months went on and as the pandemic worsened, my return date became farther away.
As an individual living through this pandemic I understood why my return date kept changing. I was experiencing all the anxiety and frustration as everyone else in quarantine. I was scared for my health and my loved ones health, but the important part was that we were home and safe. There were people who were having to say goodbye to their loved ones via Facetime, nurses wearing the same PPE for days on end and people spending weeks in isolation alone trying to recover from COVID-19.
We were and still are living through a very scary time and as child life students it has caused us to feel so many different emotions. For all students, no matter if you were in the application stage, about to start your practicum or in the middle of your internship, this pandemic affected you in some way. It has been a complete rollercoaster of events for the entire child life community. We have all experienced feelings of sadness, frustration and even anger at how this pandemic has affected us. For a long time I felt guilty experiencing all those feelings because there were worse things going on around me and it took me a while to accept that it was okay to feel the way I was feeling.
If you are a student that is currently feeling frustrated at all these new changes or even debating if child life is right for you anymore, I understand. I have been there and your feelings are 100% valid. During my seven month pause I saw interns get sent home and even interns who didn’t have an internship to go back to. I constantly compared myself to others thinking my situation wasn’t as bad and that I shouldn’t be sad because it could be worse, but telling myself that didn’t help. Everyone’s journey is different and how we handle that journey is unique to you. Do not let the experience of others dictate how you process your own feelings.
I was finally able to go back to my internship on October 12th and man was it different. It had been so long since I had been there that some of my paperwork had expired. I needed to renew my CPR certification, renew my student insurance, and fill out new paperwork on COVID restrictions. I went out and bought a face shield and was ready to finally finish my internship. Just walking into the hospital was a completely different experience. It was as if I was walking into the hospital for the first time. There were now temperature screeners at every door, hospital designated masks and stickers that everyone needed to wear on their badge showing that they were “cleared” to work on this day. Coming back to the hospital after seven months was a very weird feeling. When you are home you watch the news and hear all these stories so you can’t help but have a little bit of fear, but the second I went back, I felt ready. I was ready to keep learning, growing and ultimately ready to say “I am a child life specialist”.
Delivering services was completely different than what it had been before. As a student I would always tell my preceptors that I had a list in my head of all the things I knew I had to look out for during my assessment, but now checking to see if they had been COVID tested was a part of it. If I went into a room I needed to make sure I had all my typical child life tools including my face shield. I could no longer just pull out my bubbles and run into a room with a crying patient and I noticed my face shield was a source of fear for patients. If I had to prep three kids for surgery back to back I had to have my hospital grade cleaning wipes ready to go in order to clean after every room. It definitely challenged me on how to deliver services and gave me new opportunities to gain skills in play and rapport building.
Having experienced my internship before COVID and during COVID changed my entire experience as a student, but it proved to me that the wait was worth it. We go into this field because we want to help patients and families cope through difficult times. Whether it’s an IV placement, a cancer diagnosis or their first surgery. We all have the urge to help and are ready to do so. We go on this long journey of volunteer hours, applications, interviews and school work and now we have to add a global pandemic to the list. Being a child life student during a global pandemic has been a challenge, but I believe I am a better child life specialist because of it. It taught me how to be resilient, adaptable and showed me to not give up on my dreams.
The field of healthcare is always changing and we have to learn to adapt to all its changes. A global pandemic isn’t exactly a topic you find in Child Life 101, but it is now our reality. This post is dedicated to all the child life students currently trying to navigate this crazy new world we are living in. There might be a few new obstacles, but it is nothing you can’t handle. If child life is what you are meant to do then keep fighting. Do not lose hope and do not lose sight of what you have worked so hard for. We are all in this together, you got this!