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From Scared to Prepared: Child Life Specialists Make a Difference at Gillette

Marissa Olson Child LifeDelta Air Lines Child Life Fellow, Marissa Olson, prepares a patient for an appointment.

We’ve all had the experience of sitting in a doctor’s office, about to undergo a procedure or treatment for the first time. Even as an adult it can be intimidating. Now, imagine you’re a young child in the same situation. You’re surrounded by unfamiliar equipment and new people—and you might not fully understand what’s happening. 

That’s where child life specialists come in. These experts, specially trained in child development, possess a unique skill for calming worries, educating patients and families, and improving care. They provide evidence-based, developmentally and psychologically appropriate interventions aimed at reducing fear, anxiety, and pain during medical treatment. The result? A better experience for patients and parents—and an easier, more efficient appointment for the providers delivering care.  

Recently, through the establishment of the Delta Air Lines Child Life Fellowship Fund, Gillette was able to expand the capacity of the child life program through a fellowship position.

Marissa Olson, the inaugural child life fellow, feels grateful for the experience.

“Each day has been so different, and I feel like I am always learning something new, either from the patients, the families or from the child life team,” says Olson, “It has been great working with professionals who are such experts in their field.”  

Natalie Kinsky, child life supervisor at Gillette Children's, describes how the additional position made a difference for the team at Gillette: “A fellowship is really a gift of time. Marissa has been able to expand child life services to our Phalen Pediatrics Clinic and work on important projects that child life would not have been able to tackle otherwise, like creating more educational resources for patients and families. During the past year, we’ve grown by leaps and bounds.” During her time at Gillette, Olson has also assisted with child life coverage across nearly every department at Gillette, and even led a virtual summer camp experience for patients who couldn’t access traditional camp experiences due to COVID-19.Camp GilletteOlson facilitates a craft activity for virtual Camp Gillette with child life supervisor, Natalie Kinsky.

Although the fellowship has been an important learning experience for Olson and a valuable capacity-builder for Gillette’s child life team, the most meaningful benefit was to Gillette’s patients.

More patients were able to access these important services. At Gillette’s Phalen Pediatrics Clinic, patients being seen for neurodiagnostic procedures like electroencephalograms (EEGs) began receiving child life services for the first time, with Olson preparing families for what to expect during the procedures. Although it isn’t painful, an EEG can be uncomfortable for the patient and intimidating because of the medical equipment involved. Olson created a book with photos detailing what to expect during the procedure and worked with her patients to familiarize them with the equipment by incorporating it into developmentally appropriate play.  

Child life has been a part of Gillette’s care since the 1980’s. Because these services are generally not reimbursed by insurance, the program relies heavily on donor support.

Many of the toys, activities, and resources used in child life’s daily work are donated. The program itself is funded in part through individual donations and through contributions like the one made by Delta Air Lines, which funds the child life fellowship.

Kinsky describes this kind of community support of child life services as essential to their work, and fellowships like Olson’s as vital to Gillette’s mission, “As a teaching hospital with a commitment to education, being able to expand fellowship opportunities beyond medical and therapies is so meaningful. It’s truly representative of what Gillette stands for in our commitment to patients and families.”

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