Johns Hopkins internship prepares two stellar students

Since admitting its first class in 1857, Illinois State’s mission has been to prepare graduates for their chosen field by blending a curriculum with practical experience. A semester of student teaching was the main source of workplace exposure for decades, as the University focused on teacher training.

As degree options expanded, so did the need for students to gain real–world training in diverse fields. From campus experiences to international opportunities, faculty and staff across disciplines have worked to place students in professional environments where textbook theories and classroom lectures come to life.

For Jamie Siegel and Kim Richfield, the capstone experience came through a child life internship with Johns Hopkins Children’s Center (JHCC) in Baltimore, Maryland. The two Illinois State graduate students were the only ones chosen from a competitive national pool of applicants for the spring semester.

“An internship there is highly sought after,” said Department of Family and Consumer Sciences Assistant Professor Julie Maschoff. JHCC Child Life Department Director Patrice Brylske noted this was the first time that the department chose two students from the same university to participate in their program.

As one of the oldest programs in the country, Johns Hopkins Child Life Department has served as a model for other hospitals. Its association with Johns Hopkins Hospital makes it one of the most prestigious internships in the competitive field of child life.

“Johns Hopkins is committed to excellence in patient care, teaching, and research,” Brylske said. She noted that the program challenges students to take theory they have learned and “apply it to real-life settings.”

The core of Illinois State’s child life program—knowledge of family and child development theories and practical experience—increased Siegel’s and Richfield’s appeal as applicants.

“The key component is to be able to integrate the book knowledge, and use those concepts to make an assessment, develop goals, and achieve those goals,” JHCC Child Life Training Coordinator Erin Munn said. He praised Siegel and Richfield, saying they were “among the best prepared interns we have seen.”

“I would consider them both very strong with being able to make meaningful assessments so they can help children and families adjust to, and cope with, the healthcare experience,” Munn said.

The JHCC program, which has three, 15–week rotations per year, allows students to explore multiple areas within the field. Each internship period is divided into two, seven–week rotations in an area of the intern’s choosing. Students observe certified child life specialists in their practice, and work under their supervision.

“Part of our internship involved developing our own style of applying child life theories to practice,” Siegel explained. She and Richfield were also required to spend one week observing at other hospitals to learn how programs differ.

Siegel has a bachelor’s degree in family and consumer communications from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She learned about child life through a family friend. “After working in the communications field I realized I was missing…the rewarding experiences and feelings I had with my previous volunteer activities with kids,” Siegel said.

She explored the child life field and was “immediately drawn to the dynamic, creative, and therapeutic elements of the profession.” Siegel chose Illinois State’s program because of the thought–provoking coursework, and the opportunity to gain practical experience through a graduate assistantship.

“It’s been a great experience, and I think that faculty have a lot to do with that,” Siegel said. She noted that the family and child development theories taught at Illinois State served as a foundation for her first two rotations.

Siegel started at Johns Hopkins in the presurgical unit, where she helped ready patients for upcoming procedures through psychological preparation, medical play, and other therapeutic interventions that help children cope with stress and anxiety related to hospitalization.

The inpatient oncology unit was Siegel’s second rotation. There she learned how to initiate a deeper rapport with families, and build upon the interventions she used in her first rotation. “The outpatient setting was a faster pace and more scheduled than the inpatient unit. In this setting a patient can be in from one day to several months,” she said, which allows time to build a deeper rapport.

Siegel provided families in both units with emotional support. As a result she gained a deeper understanding of how a parent’s or family member’s anxiety can influence a child’s stress levels.

“Some children might be used to a household where there is high stress. Depending on the circumstances, different interventions are applied to help support families throughout a hospitalization,” she said. “Helping the parents often helps the children.”

Working in the pediatric oncology unit was a test of Siegel’s emotional strength. She found that being brave, supportive, and thinking positive thoughts is the key to getting through. “It’s challenging at times,” she said. “My thought is that these people need my help more than ever.”

Richfield, who holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, learned about child life during a senior capstone class. “I thought it sounded interesting, so I went home, found the Child Life Council Web site, and fell in love with it from there. I really like the psychosocial, emotional part of it.”

Richfield applied to many different programs across the country. She became convinced that Illinois State would give her the strongest advantage. “When it came down to it, Illinois State is specifically a child life program,” Richfield explained. “Not a lot of other places can provide you with that experience.”

Like Siegel, Richfield supported families during both of her rotations. She spent her first weeks in the Harriet Lane Clinic, which offers healthcare services, treatment for acute conditions, and psychological support for families insured through Medicaid.

She spent much of her time in the waiting room or the play area, where she talked to children, built a rapport with the families, and asked questions to assess which families needed the most attention. “A lot of times I’d follow up with them in the exam rooms, and if there was anything that came up that they were stressed about, I tried to help them through that,” she said.

She used her knowledge of child and family development theories as a foundation for the assessments she made about the families she met in the clinic. “I got a lot of the child development theories when I was in undergrad,” said Richfield. “It wasn’t until ISU that I got the family theories.”

Richfield has grown in her ability to analyze family dynamics as a result of her internship. “Some parents were very involved,” she said, noting they would bring things for their children to do and ask them questions while they were waiting. “Other families were in greater need of assistance. I often modeled appropriate interactions in hopes that parents would pick up on ways that they could support their children in the future.”

Her second rotation in the medical surgical school age and burn unit was a lesson in time management, family intervention, and learning her own unique approach to providing children with the appropriate interventions. “In this area, the procedures were a lot more invasive and stressful,” Richfield said.

“It definitely was a different pace,” she said, noting she would typically see a child only once and worked with minimal information. It was important to make an impression on the families and perform her interventions in a short amount of time.

Richfield was also responsible for helping the certified child life specialists prepare children psychologically for medical procedures and bandage changes. The effort involved anything from engaging the children in medical play to showing them books about what they might experience based on the five senses.

“One of the things we can do is give the child a cloth doll so they can create a buddy with the same condition they have,” she said. “We always tell the kids that there are two guidelines in this hospital: first, there are no surprises, and second, we will always tell you the truth.”

The specialists encouraged the children to be honest about their condition so that their emotional needs could be addressed. “The overarching goal of child life is to reduce the stress and anxiety of children when they’re in the hospital, clinic, or any kind of healthcare environment,” Richfield said.

Both she and Siegel are now even more empowered to do exactly that as they enter the work place. They have grown exponentially in their journey to become child life specialists by blending their Illinois State studies with the Johns Hopkins internship experience. Each has gained a competitive advantage and a genuine enthusiasm as they realize the difference they can and will make in the lives of young patients and their families.

“It’s definitely a rewarding profession. I see a lot of smiles,” Siegel said. “I am constantly in awe of the resilience and magic I see in the children.”