For Hub City Times
MARSHFIELD — Certified Child Life Specialist Heather Berndt handed her 8-year-old patient a homemade Packers cape and said, “Natalie, you’ll be able to do anything with this cape on.”
With Berndt’s support and encouragement, Natalie Schwirtz of Scandinavia was brave enough to undergo the endoscopy she needed to diagnose her Celiac’s disease and begin her pediatrician’s plan for healing. The nonsurgical examination of Natalie’s digestive tract took place at Marshfield Clinic’s Ambulatory Surgery Center and required her to undergo anesthesia.
Security Health Plan is investing $20,000 toward Marshfield Clinic’s Child Life Program that works to minimize stress and anxiety patients like Natalie might otherwise experience during medical procedures.
“Natalie was sad and scared the morning of the procedure. We had trouble getting her out of the house,” said her mother, Jennifer Schwirtz.
Once she arrived at the ambulatory surgery center, Berndt was there to engage Natalie in therapeutic and medical play. While the physician briefed Schwirtz on Natalie’s procedure in the hallway, Berndt stepped in with a penguin named Waddles, coloring books, and the cape that would become Natalie’s token of empowerment.
“It was like watching Natalie with her aunt,” Schwirtz said. “Once we got there, Heather connected with Natalie, along with her likes and dislikes, and just took it from there.”
Berndt showed Natalie a picture of the operating room to familiarize her with the lights, monitors, and equipment she would see during the procedure. They also practiced deep breathing by using a real anesthesia mask to blow bubbles. This play allowed Natalie to become more comfortable with the medical equipment and practice her operating room tasks.
Berndt remained with Natalie from the preoperative procedure through the end of the Schwirtzs’ day at the ambulatory surgery center, calming and empowering Natalie while supporting and educating her parents.
“I was a mix of emotions when we arrived,” Schwirtz said. “I felt guilty for not knowing about Natalie’s illness and helpless to fix it. But when I broke down, Heather opened her arms to me and gave me comfort and reassurance. Heather’s patience, expertise, and ability gave us such a positive experience. She was everything we needed that morning.”
Security Health Plan’s investment supports program staffing as well as the items used in Natalie’s therapeutic play, medical play, and preparation for her procedure.
“With their resources, the staff engaged Natalie and gave her their full attention. They treated her as if she were their child and even shared personal experiences to connect with her. They didn’t have to do that,” Schwirtz said.
The Child Life Program offers preadmission tours and preprocedure preparation for child and adolescent patients and their parents. During procedures, the program uses coping, support, and comfort positioning techniques to increase patient security and reduce stress and anxiety. Pet and music therapies are sometimes incorporated into postoperative healing to normalize the hospital environment and enhance healing.
Natalie said the program was helpful to her, “I was scared but not when Heather was there. She relaxed me and made me happy.”