It was a sight uncommon in the surgery wing of a hospital: A young boy riding piggyback on the way to a procedure.
The boy was 5-year-old patient Balian Funderburk and his ride was Jess Calvert, M.A., a Child Life Specialist whose role is to ease the fear and anxiety of young patients and their families as they receive treatment at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. Sometimes that’s through games that get children familiar with the medical equipment they’re about to see; sometimes through a reassuring hug for the parents in the waiting room; and anything in between.
“This role is critical to family-centered care, and my whole focus is making sure a child feels supported and safe,” Calvert said. “This happens by supporting that family system.”
Balian’s parents, Hannah and Alex, say the Child Life Specialists and medical staff at Doernbecher have changed their view of pediatric care and given their son a new voice.
“Since we met Jess, our experience has changed for the better,” Hannah said. “She came in to a very traumatized little boy and calmed him by simply saying, ‘I’m here to help you, play with you and be your friend.’ She gave my son the opportunity to be a person, and gave me and my husband an opportunity to be parents.”
A challenging road
Hannah and Alex, who met during their time in the Marine Corps in North Carolina, were overjoyed to learn the news that they were expecting their first child in 2017. Then, during Hannah’s pregnancy, their son, Balian, was diagnosed with spina bifida, a permanent condition that affects the formation of the spine.
Balian had been in and out of hospitals since the day he was born, receiving his first spinal surgery less than 24 hours after birth. He would spend the next five years of his young life at various clinics and hospitals to receive regular physical and occupational therapy, as well as four intensive spinal surgeries, which required weeks, or even months, of recovery time.
It’s been a long and oftentimes challenging and painful road for the family, but the Funderburks have remained unwavering in their dedication to their son, seeking care at various children’s hospitals across the country. When the Funderburks relocated to Oregon several years ago, they were thrilled to learn that along with the team of medical professionals providing Balian’s care at OHSU Doernbecher Children's Hospital, they’d also have access to a Child Life Specialist during their hospital stays.
“We’ve been to several hospitals around the country but have never, ever come across a Child Life Specialist,” Hannah said. “It’s been lifechanging for Balian and our family. They’ve been the calm through the storm for us.”
A unique program
The Child Life Therapy Program includes a team of Child Life Specialists who are educated in child development and specially trained to support patients and families through the psychological, social and emotional aspects of hospitalization. Children may feel scared or anxious about the unfamiliar people, places and procedures they experience while in the hospital. Child Life Specialists are there to help explain what’s happening and allow children to express their feelings and ask questions in a safe, comfortable way, as well as engage patients in activities that can lower anxiety about a medical procedure or surgery.
Calvert is one of those Child Life Specialists and has worked with the Funderburks and countless other families over the years. Her work focuses on surgery and sedation, and supporting patients through anesthesia induction as a much-needed friendly face during an often frightening and unfamiliar process.
Calvert emphasized that medical play is the core of what her team does.
“Child Life Specialists play, and we play hard,” Calvert said. “That’s because play is the work of children, especially when they’re stressed or scared.”
Medical play offers fun, interactive ways to familiarize children with the medical equipment and procedures they’ll be experiencing. For Balian’s most recent surgery in January 2023, this included decorating his anesthesia mask with colorful stickers and playing with a ‘fidget tube,’ which mimics the circuit tube that gets attached to his anesthesia mask before surgery. Balian was also able to choose his own special flavor for his anesthesia mask; his choice of the day was cotton candy.
In addition to facilitating medical play, Calvert is by Balian’s side to provide emotional support every step of the way leading up to his surgery, from checking in at the front desk all the way to reaching the operating table — and, before his most recent surgery, Balian requested that piggyback ride to the surgery wing.
“Parents and guardians aren’t able to go inside the operating room, and while I am in no way taking place of that parent, I am honored to be able to step into that role in that moment,” Calvert said.
The support of a Child Life Specialist spans beyond the patient themselves, focusing on family-centered care throughout the entirety of a child’s hospital stay. Once Balian’s surgery began, Calvert returned to meet the Funderburks in the waiting room and immediately shared a warm, tearful embrace, reassuring them that their son was safe and she was there for them.
Although Balian has endured several spinal surgeries before and generally knows what to expect, Calvert notes that her work is important each and every time.
“Some days he’s great and things go really smooth, but just like all of us, sometimes we have tough days,” Calvert said. “It’s crucial that no matter the situation, I’m there to provide that extra care and support to get him through.”
A letter of thanks
Following Balian’s recent surgeries, the Funderburks were overwhelmed with emotion; Calvert suggested they may benefit from documenting how they were feeling. Inspired by the work of the Child Life Specialist team, the Funderburks took the exercise as an opportunity to express their appreciation for Calvert and delivered a heartfelt letter detailing the impact she had made on Balian and their family.
“Receiving that letter was wonderful and represents all the things you hope are seen as a Child Life Specialist,” Calvert said. “The work we do can be very subtle, but very meaningful and highly educated. I love that despite its subtlety; it so beautifully captured our interactions and what it meant to them. I was so validated reading that.”
Balian is now at home, recovering from his latest surgery and settling back into daily life at school and with his family. While he will still require ongoing therapies and treatments for his condition, his parents say that doesn’t stop him from being his positive, empathetic and fun-loving self.
“He has a big heart, so much positivity and cares deeply about others,” Alex said. “He’s just a great kid.”
No parent wants to pay a visit to the hospital with their child, but the Funderburks and countless other families can find comfort knowing they’ll have a compassionate team of pediatric care providers like Calvert behind them in their toughest moments.
“The moment we see her red hair coming through that door, we think: thank goodness Jess is here,” Hannah said. “She has given us the hope we’re looking for in a very hopeless moment.”