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Specialist eases kids' hospital experiences

Child life specialist Krista Majerus, right, gets 3-year-old Elizabeth Graham comfortable before going in to the see the doctor after complaining of chest pain and a fever. Bulletin photo by Riham Feshir1 / 2
Krista Majerus explains the suturing procedure to 8-year-old John Bakken who fell and injured the right side of his face. Bulletin photo by Riham Feshir2 / 2

With five boys, Pam Bakken she said she's bound to visit the emergency room often.

Various visits to the hospital that the Bakken family has made over the years have been for a variety of reasons -- from broken fingers and cracked shoulders, to the flu, cuts and scrapes.

Though the family is from South St. Paul, they like the Woodwinds Emergency Department not just for the services, but for the friendly faces known as Certified Child Life Specialists.

"They just know what to do with every age," Bakken said. "It's fun to see how they can relate to all ages."

Robert Sicoli, Children's Hospitals' emergency department co-medical director, said everyone has some level of anxiety when they visit the ER, whether it's a child, adolescent, or an adult.

"The role of the child life worker, which we believe is unique and paramount to the care we deliver, is to put that child as well as the family at ease," he said, "to provide a thorough explanation of what will likely happen, whether it's gonna be an IV, a laceration repair ... "

Bakken's son, John, had an accident playing outside last week that injured his cheek, directly below his right eye. He needed stitches and some X-rays to rule out any head injuries.

Though he's no stranger to the ER, he still gets a little nervous if he doesn't understand what's going on, he said.

Krista Majerus, a new child life specialist at Woodwinds, is now working with children - and parents - to calm them down and lessen their fears that come along with visiting the ER.

Typically, child life specialists are available in children's hospitals only, but Woodwinds contracts with Children's Hospital in St. Paul to provide the services on the Woodbury campus. There are two people who rotate shifts mostly in the evening hours when the kids are out of school and the hospital is busier.

On a Monday afternoon, when John Bakken, 8, fell on a cement wall, the blood was coming down his face staining his shirt, pants and shoes, and the active South St. Paul child wasn't sure how doctors were going to check to see if he was OK.

When he arrived at Woodwinds, he was treated by the triage nurses before going in to get X-rayed and checked out by a physician.

Since ERs are normally places where getting treatment takes quite a bit of time, in between visits with nurses, technicians and doctors, John was kept company by Majerus who provided some distractions in addition to information on how he'd get his cut fixed.

"When children are given the information ahead of time, they tend to do a lot better in medical procedures," Majerus said, adding, "for most children, their anxiety comes not from the fear of pain, it comes from the unknown.

"Giving kids the information is the best thing we can do for them."

But it varies by age. John understood that his role in the X-ray process was to sit still in order to get a clear image. As for the suturing procedure, he was to lie down and take deep breaths.

For 3-year-old Elizabeth Graham of Inver Grove Heights, she spent two days in a row at Woodwinds' ER after suffering from a cough combined with a fever and the possibility of upper respiratory infection.

Dressed in a blue, princess-inspired dress, Lizzie appeared tired, leaning on her mom's shoulder every so often while waiting to see a doctor for the second day in a row.

Majerus kept up with the fairy tale theme and gave Lizzie a magic wand and helped distract her while waiting in the ER with books, toys and princess movies.

Since the toddler experienced a febrile seizure at 18 months, her mom, Kate, said she gets worried every time her temperature spikes.

At 104 degrees last Monday, Kate Graham said the doctors were hoping to rule out pneumonia and any other signs of a serious illness.

When she visited the ER for the first time and interacted with Majerus, Lizzie went home and actually asked her mom if she could go back.

"I think she helps Lizzie get more comfortable," Graham said of Majerus. "It's less scary for her here as well as less daunting and intimidating."

She added that child life specialists don't only pay attention to the comfort of the child.

"It's not just helping her, but she helps me focus on the discussion with the doctors," Graham said.

Majerus is always ready with tiny medical equipment for tiny people that are made to help show little kids in the ER how procedures are done. She's able to give them video games and books to help distract them. But when it comes to inpatients, or those who transfer to the hospital from the ER, who deal with end-of-life care, their relatives need just as much support - psychologically.

In the medical world, complications always arise. Some new moms end up losing their babies unexpectedly, while others are informed of fetal demise, which is a diagnosis that says the child will not survive, Majerus said.

She said working with the siblings of babies who don't survive as well as the mothers is also part of her role as a child life specialist.

"Some kids want to know more than others. Some kids want to know every detail," she said.

Woodwinds Emergency Department sees between 6,500 to 7,000 patients a year. Half of those patients are seen by pediatricians and child life specialists, respectively.

Majerus began working with Woodwinds Hospital in February. She said the role of a child life specialist is unique in the sense that it blends medicine with social work.

"I love the interactions with the kids. I love when the patient's visit is over and they're going home with a good feeling," she said.

"No one ever plans to come to the emergency room," Majerus continued, but if they did, at least she'll be there to help.

Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.