Healing isn’t only about curing someone of an illness or injury with medicine or surgery. Sometimes it’s also about providing information, social and emotional support, and, maybe, even a little fun.
That holistic approach to patient care is why College of Charleston graduate student Abigail Davis is pursuing a master’s degree in Child Life, a field that focuses on the developmental impact of illness and injury on children. Through play and emotional support, child life specialists help children dealing with illness or injury find ways to alleviate stress and anxiety so that they continue to reach developmental milestones as well as maintain their physical and emotional health during treatment or recovery.
“Medical professionals focus on the physical needs of the child and the physical needs of the family, whereas our job is to focus on the emotional and psychosocial needs of the child and family,” says Davis, noting that students in the College’s Child Life program participate in a series of practicums through a partnership with the Medial University of South Carolina.
And this past summer Davis got to see first-hand how such techniques can transcend culture, language and nationality when she spent a month working at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa. Davis, who earned her undergraduate degree in child and family studies from Louisiana State University, spent a year teaching in Italy prior to graduate school and was looking to have another professional experience abroad. So when she came across a Child Life internship program through Connect-123, a company that develops and administers international internships, she jumped at the opportunity.
For the entire month of July, Davis worked at the children’s hospital in Cape Town, helping to comfort and support children in the day surgery ward. She also did rotations through six other wards, including the burn unit, hematology, oncology, cardiac, pain management and trauma.
Her work with children focused on play therapy as well as teaching coping skills to children who were exhibiting signs of stress and anxiety while in the hospital.
Although there was a bit of a language barrier, Davis says the community approach to caring for children among tribes made it easier to assist families.
“I saw a whole sense of community you just don’t get in Western medicine,” she says. “The families were so eager to get to know us and were so responsive to everything we told them.”
Four months later, as Davis prepares to complete her degree with a clinical internship this spring at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, she says her experience in South Africa has helped solidify her understanding of child life techniques and the universal ways the approach can help children.
“I think it definitely showed me something I kind of already knew, which is that child life can be done anywhere,” she says. “And developing cultural competencies and understanding different cultures can shed light on how to support children and families with different parenting styles, faiths and customs in any country.”
Featured image: Abigail Davis (center) with other child life interns at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa.