UK HealthCare

Child Life Staff Provide Comfort, Empowerment for Kids at Vaccine Clinics

Emily Bollinger
Child Life specialist Emily Bollinger uses a doll to prepare 3-year-old Olivia, a participant in the KidCove Moderna trial, for her vaccination. Pete Comparoni | UK Photo.

LEXINGTON Ky. (Dec. 8, 2021) For Emily Bollinger, vaccinations are an opportunity to empower children. She and the Child Life staff at Kentucky Children’s Hospital (KCH) are focused on providing support and comfort for children in medical settings, which now includes the KCH Moderna KidCOVE trial clinic and the pediatric Pfizer clinic.

“A child coming for their initial visit at KidCOVE is going to get a nasal swab, have labs drawn and they're going to have their first injection,” said Bollinger. “All of those are invasive, to an extent. They're uncomfortable. We have the environment set up to be very supportive and welcoming.”

The Child Life program is a specialized service providing play opportunities for patients of the Kentucky Children's Hospital and their families. Play helps a child understand and cope with their medical care, continue their normal growth and development, and eases the stress families experience while the child is in the hospital.

Bollinger and her staff became involved with KidCOVE during the planning phase of the clinical trial and were able to give significant input in the planning and preparation. They made recommendations about the clinical environment and what it should look like, what the sequence of the visit should look like, the materials parents would receive, scheduling and more. In terms of planning, the Child Life program has responded to other issues such as what materials they may need, what toys and tools they should have available to kids and whether they should stay in the exam room for the duration of their visit.

“In order to create a trusted environment for the kids, the Child Life specialist is able to make the child feel in control by giving them options,” said Bollinger. “The kids are offered choices such as sitting wherever makes them feel the most comfortable and giving them the option to look away or watch during the vaccination.”

Patients are also given the option to use a numbing spray prior to getting an injection. They reference the movie “Frozen” by calling it the “Olaf spray” or “Elsa spray.” Child Life specialists encourage patients by saying things like, “It will be really cold, but remember, you’re brave like Elsa, so the cold never bothered you anyway, right?”

“Being able to encourage brave behavior is typically successful with school-aged kids, because they love feeling accomplished and helpful,” said Bollinger. “Making them feel capable also allows them to feel proud and excited to be part of something.”

Parents who may be on the fence about vaccinating their children are encouraged to talk to their child’s pediatrician to get the facts about the vaccine. It is important to note that mRNA technology is not new, but feels new due to the recent COVID pandemic. Bollinger says that helping parents and kids cope with past negative experiences with vaccinations will allow them to create a new perception on the idea of getting vaccinated. Making them feel comfortable enough to cope with this nerving experience is another reason the Child Life program has made such an impact on children and families of the trials.

“It is unusual that a kindergartner can do something concrete that is going to change the world and make it safer and better,” said Bollinger. “And by getting vaccinated, they genuinely do.”

The Child Life program’s involvement in clinical research trials such as KidCOVE is so unprecedented that Moderna had to amend its own administrative procedures to bring the specialists on board. Having this Child Life aspect added into a research study involving children is a very logical response to the productivity aspect of the trial. Allowing kids to feel calm and safe while receiving vaccinations is something that allows research to be more accurately recorded.

“The use of Child Life expertise to support and enhance clinical trials is truly innovative, and we will definitely continue this approach,” said John Bauer, Ph.D, vice chair of pediatric research at Kentucky Children’s Hospital. “Although it began as an incredibly unique and unusual collaboration, it quickly become an effective partnership. Through this study, over 150 kids and their families have felt positively about being involved in the trial.”

Learn more about participating in clinical research trials.

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