Getting to Know a UCSF Pediatric Radiology Child Life Specialist

The following post was written by Jonathan Iris-Wilbanks, MA, CCLS at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital: San Francisco.

Child Life Specialists have a unique role in radiology and I am delighted to share my experience with you. As a certified child life specialist (CLS) my job is to help children and their families get through radiology tests as quickly and comfortably as possible, while providing some education along the way.  Most children have never experienced an imaging test before and children respond very differently than adults do, particularly to the big MRI and CT scanners.  I comfort kids and use creative ways to calm them and help them to sit still so that the Department of Radiology team can focus on getting detailed pictures with the imaging machines. This makes for better images and helps doctors better understand what might be going on inside the child.

‘Certified Child Life Specialist’ is a vague job title, and chances are if you have never spent time in a children’s hospital you might not know about my role on the health care team. However, for the families and children that I work with, our time together can make a huge difference in their hospital experience. My job looks different for every family and child that I interact with, and yet the goal of Child Life permeates throughout all of my interactions: to support the continuing development of children who come to the hospital. I am here to help children and family deal with potentially traumatic events and cope with the challenges of hospitalization.

In 2014 I received a Master’s Degree from Mills College in Early Childhood Education with a focus on Children in Hospitals and national certification. I also credit 15 years of working with children and families all over the world, from Sweden to San Francisco, as a large part of my education. All Child Life Specialists have a strong background in development, psychology, and family systems. We use this knowledge as developmental specialists to inform and guide interventions. Working at UCSF offers me the chance to learn from my colleagues whose roles range from doctors, technologists, therapy specialists, nurses, and beyond.

The nature of working in pediatric radiology means that one moment I may be on the ground in the waiting room playing blocks with a toddler, and 10 minutes later I will be providing distraction and reengagement during an invasive fluoroscopy procedure. For children who are old enough to have conversations, I use education and explanation to transform fear and anxiety about imaging and procedures into understanding and empowerment. I give parents and children ‘jobs’, help rehearse breathing techniques for pain reduction, and help kids practice holding really still for upcoming pictures. A large part of my job is  explaining the simple truths associated with a patient’s procedure in developmentally appropriate language, and helping to prepare them for what they may see, feel, hear, smell, or taste. I pay special attention to helping children understand and cope with pain or discomfort. The vehicle of child life intervention is the therapeutic relationship, to build this relationship I approach children from a place of deep respect and feel that to treat them with dignity we must be honest and forthcoming regarding their potential experience during procedures. Since my job is often to share potentially stressful information, I make sure to do so in a sensitive and respectful way.

One of the greatest joys in my job is when a child I have been working with is able to access a variety of coping skills to get through a challenging procedure, whether it is a long MRI, short IV poke, or urinary catheterization. Successful coping often results in a shining sense of accomplishment. Many pediatric patients walk into the hospital a bit scared, and perhaps intimidated by the challenges that they may face during their visit; few things bring me more joy than to see these same patients leave the hospital with an air of confidence and achievement knowing that I played a part in supporting their individual needs.

Learn more about pediatric radiology at UCSF here!